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Is Europe Safe From the Soviets? : Our Arms-Control Strategies Misunderstand the Threat

March 19, 1987|JERRY F. HOUGH | Jerry F. Hough is a professor of political science at Duke University and staff member of the Brookings Institution in Washington

The Reagan Administration once denounced arms control for arms control's sake, but that is what it is now doing in trying to seek agreement with the Soviets concerning intermediate-range missiles in Europe.

Because the President allowed the United States to exceed the limits of the un-ratified SALT II treaty, the Soviet offer to destroy 1,000 intermediate warheads targeted at Europe is meaningless. All that Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev has to do is replace them with 1,000 long-range warheads that are no longer limited because SALT II is no longer being observed.

The time has come to end the symbolic arms control of the 1970s and to begin to think clearly about the control of arms. The place to start is with a clear understanding of the interests of our adversary.

During the 1970s we spoke so much about the conventional threat to Europe and a Soviet policy of "Finlandization" of the Continent that we eventually came to believe it.

But in fact the development of intercontinental missiles, the split with China, the rise of political movements such as Solidarity in Eastern Europe and the growing dependence of the Soviet Union on West European technology and capital have combined to destroy all Soviet interest in the conquest of Western Europe.

What would the Soviet Union gain by such a move? The Germanys would have to be reunited, and communist regimes would have to be installed throughout Western Europe. How could Moscow know that these regimes would not become as hostile as China has or develop liberal movements like Solidarity? The communist economies would no longer provide good technology. And with the dissolution of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization the Soviet Union would not even have the excuse to keep its troops in Eastern Europe.

And what would the Soviet Union gain militarily from a conquest of Western Europe? Almost nothing. The danger to the Soviet Union comes over the North Pole, from the United States, and it would not be reduced.

Still, while many people acknowledge that the Soviet Union is not likely to invade Western Europe, they continue to insist that a Soviet military buildup will intimidate the Continent and bring it under Moscow's sphere of influence. However, this argument does not fit either with international-relations theory or with practice.

Balance-of-power theory has said that aggressive action causes other major powers to unite against the aggressor. NATO is the longest-lasting military alliance in history because the Soviet Union has been threatening.

Aesop had it right many centuries ago. If you want a man to take his coat off, you don't use the north wind, but the sun. When Western Europe has been accommodating to the Soviets, it has been because of economic opportunities, not military threats.

Why, then, did Leonid I. Brezhnev station such a large force facing Europe?

First, of course, the Soviet Union's troops were needed to control Eastern Europe--although not in such large numbers.

Second, the strongest argument for economic reform is that technological backwardness is dangerous for defense. A conventional buildup that caused Westerners to speak of a Soviet military threat made it difficult for reformers to speak of defects in the country's defense.

Third, the Soviet Union was haunted by a worst-case scenario. If a Solidarity-like movement moved East Germany into a long revolt, might West Germany not be tempted to intervene? Brezhnev wanted enough troops to handle this without nuclear weapons, plus a large enough reserve to defend the border with China. NATO was in his interest if it kept Germany under control.

Gorbachev still wants the capability to intervene, in extreme cases, in Eastern Europe. And he still has to fear that a West Germany independent of the United States will eventually acquire its own nuclear weapons and pose a greater danger to Moscow.

But Gorbachev is different. He repeatedly says that he has a "new concept of security."

He also has an interest in pushing through reform, not in preventing it. Hence he wants to use the defense argument for reform. He needs to exaggerate the danger from high-tech "Star Wars" weapons and cruise missiles and play down the value of expensive troops and tanks.

In addition, Gorbachev wants European investment inside the Soviet Union, and here he needs to glow like the sun instead of blowing like the north wind. He needs to reduce the conventional threat to Europe both to reassure it and to save money.

To a surprising extent, Soviet interests coincide with those of America. Neither side wants the United States to break its links with Europe; both need to stop spending so much money on European defense and instead devote funds to competing with Japan. If we linked a conventional arms-control agreement with a partial withdrawal of missiles from Europe, we might find Gorbachev ready to compromise.

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