The agreement to eliminate short- and intermediate-range missiles in Europe offers great opportunities, but also risks.
The agreement is important for three reasons: First, it rolls the clock back 10 years. The issue of "Eurobalance," first raised in a dramatic way by Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of West Germany in 1977, became the dominant controversy within the NATO alliance and the principal issue of confrontation between the United States and four successive Soviet leaders for almost a decade. To sweep this issue off the table, particularly in circumstances so favorable to the West, is no small accomplishment.
Second, the experience of those 10 years shows that public opinion matters in nuclear questions. The crisis was precipitated by what now appears to have been an essentially mindless, apolitical process of Soviet "modernization," the deployment of the Soviet SS-20 missiles. It was exacerbated by NATO's equally ill-conceived technological answer--the Pershing 2 and cruise missiles--which heightened fears of war and brought millions into the streets. The resulting political pressure brought the Reagan Administration to the negotiating table against its own better judgment and created the climate in which the Soviet Union and West Germany also agreed to make important concessions.
Third and most significant, the agreement clears the way for a new NATO security strategy which is long overdue. True, this will be the first agreement requiring the actual destruction of nuclear missiles. But the military balance, the risks of unintended nuclear war or the near-certainty that a nuclear exchange would bring planet-shattering destruction will not be much affected.
Whether the world is safer after the treaty is signed depends on what happens the day the missiles are dismantled. If all that happens is that the United States and the Soviet Union meet in Geneva once more to talk about reducing strategic missiles, we will have a renewal of the cycle of suspicion and confusion within NATO that bred the 10-year Euromissile crisis.
Under Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the Soviets are unlikely to make the mistakes that permitted the United States to restore a semblance of unity within the alliance in the mid-1980s.
The reflex response to the initiation of the denuclearization process in Europe is to increase the investment in conventional weapons. This course is favored not only by the Reagan Administration but also by most of the Democratic presidential candidates who have spoken out on the subject. It is a recipe for splitting Europe and the United States and ensuring another decade of wheel-spinning.
The defense of Europe became nuclear primarily because nuclear weapons are cheap. There is no indication that European populations will support major increases in defense spending to fight a war that fewer and fewer believe is coming. There is even less likelihood that in a time of huge budget deficits the American people will continue to support between 40% and 60% of the military budget going to the defense of Europe. Calls for bringing home American troops have been sounded, mostly on the right. The demands for punitive withdrawal will make essential cooperation between Europe and America on economic, military and environmental matters much more difficult, but these demands will gather strength if there is no consensus behind an alternative security strategy for Europe.
The contours of such a strategy are clear:
It should address the most plausible threats, not 40-year-old nightmares. That threat is not a Soviet blitzkrieg, which responsible NATO officials do not expect, but the unintended escalation of an accidental war, most likely occurring outside Europe. Soviet capabilities are the problem, not their assumed intentions. Negotiations for major reductions of forces, less threatening forward deployments and a lower state of readiness to reduce these capabilities could create a much less threatening military environment in which the Europeans would then be able to pose a much more credible deterrent by themselves.
The Europeans should play a much larger role in future disarmament negotiations and in developing an alternative military strategy to deter an attack on their territory. Negotiations should deal with nuclear and conventional weapons, since the security issue cannot be separated.
In consultation with European allies, the United States should begin a process of orderly withdrawal of its forces from Europe. The Europeans have the population and resources to develop a far more credible deterrent of a Soviet attack than the increasingly incredible American pledge to court a suicidal nuclear war for the "defense of Europe."