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Grand Words Don't Make an Allied Strategy

June 11, 1989|CHRISTOPH BERTRAM | Christoph Bertram is the diplomatic correspondent of Die Zeit in Hamburg

HAMBURG — It was a close call--the typical denouement of a NATO crisis. Without President Bush's initiative at the Brussels summit, the Western alliance would have remained water-logged, like a ship with a large leak, stagnant in the stream of international politics. The quarrel between West Germany and its major allies would have festered on. And the American President would have been judged pleasant, amiable--and ineffective.

But the Brussels summit became a success because of George Bush. And when, after eight hours of negotiations through the night, the compromise was finally reached, and even Margaret Thatcher agreed to it, the sigh of relief emerging from the council room in NATO's gray Brussels headquarters could be heard loud and clear.

But it is one thing to concoct a compromise to avoid a rift and quite another to develop a long-term strategy. In their relief, the heads of state were carried away by the belief that they had now a coherent plan for the future. All they have done is plug a leak in the ship of the alliance. That is no small achievement. It is important, however, to keep in mind that by his proposal for speeding up negotiations on conventional force reductions, President Bush has merely taken a leaf out of President Gorbachev's book. And yet, despite the superficial symmetry of the initiatives from East and West, the challenges for the West remain profoundly different.

Mikhail S. Gorbachev faces a daunting but conceptually rather simple task. He has to make sure that the Soviet Union can survive the profound crisis that 70 years of the bureaucratic-Communist complex have produced. Gorbachev's approach is that of a chief executive officer who, in order to make his enterprise survive, cuts off all those branches that have been operating at a loss. The Afghan adventure is too costly? Leave Afghanistan. Aid to Nicaragua and Vietnam, politically and financially too expensive? Stop it. The bloated military Establishment a drain on the exchequer? Reduce the number of troops and tanks. As the Soviets are first to admit, domestic urgency drives their foreign policy. Gorbachev's statesmanship lies both in his recognition of this basic fact and in his ability to turn it to his advantage by making his country internationally respected again.

The task of the West, however, is very different. True, economic problems and pressures are felt by all Western governments, and in times of receding military threat there is an understandable wish to reduce the costs of defense. But in contrast to the East, the West has been largely successful. It does not face the kind of disaster that, as Dr. Johnson observed, concentrates the mind. We are entering an era in which the military threat to Western security no longer overshadows all East-West policy; it is an era in which the maintenance of international order and stability, rather than merely the absence of an East-West military conflict, must receive top priority.

It is precisely because of this need to develop a new strategy, rather than, like the Soviet Union, merely pay for the mistakes of the past, that the West has found it so difficult to develop a coherent concept for the future.

That challenge looms large, and neither NATO's post-summit surge of self-confidence, nor the many words contained in the declarations passed by the alliance's chief representatives, are quite enough to meet it. True, President Bush and his colleagues are now talking in identical terms about shaping "a new political order of peace in Europe," and of striving "for an international community founded on the rule of law." But grand words, however welcome, do not make a strategy, just as visions do not make a policy.

To develop both will take time. It will take much more transatlantic debate and probably many more disagreements. It will take mistakes and risks. Only then will a new alliance consensus emerge on which the West, and perhaps the world, can build. To imitate Mikhail Gorbachev, as George Bush did so successfully in Brussels, can only be a stop-gap operation.

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