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Regional Outlook : Drinking a Toast to Europe's Future : The centerpiece of the party will be the signing of a pact reducing conventional forces. Will such treaties be passe in the new Europe's future?


WASHINGTON — It will be a coming-out party for the New Europe, and the guests are to leave most of their weapons at the door.

Amid the splendor of a 34-nation summit meeting in Paris next week, members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Warsaw Pact countries are to sign a historic treaty reducing the number of conventional forces--tanks, artillery, and aircraft--that both sides have stationed in Europe.

The landmark accord formally recognizes the end of the Cold War-era threat posed by the military forces of the former Soviet Bloc, which has disintegrated in the wake of the recent changes in Soviet foreign policy.

But the agreement comes amid political crosscurrents that raise serious questions about whether arms negotiations such as these have much of a future.

Actual events--such as the moves by the newly emerging East European democracies to expel remaining Soviet forces from their countries--have been outpacing the negotiations. And with the Cold War over, there is less anxiety about war and, to some extent, less sense of urgency about traditional arms control efforts.

The treaty limiting Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) provides for the Soviet Union and its former East European allies to slash their European arsenals by 40%--and for NATO to cut its European forces by 3%--to comply with new equal arms ceilings on both sides of the now-fallen Iron Curtain.

According to the agreement, most of the surplus equipment must be destroyed, and each side will be authorized to conduct on-site inspections to verify that the other is complying with the terms of the treaty.

And together with the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) agreement expected early next year, the CFE pact represents a milestone from which to view both the record of arms control negotiations to date and their prospects reaching into the 21st Century.

The Background

Arms control has been central to U.S.-Soviet relations for more than a generation, and invariably has been controversial.

The first U.S.-Soviet arms control treaty, in 1963, banned nuclear tests in the atmosphere, space and oceans. It succeeded in limiting radioactive contamination of the environment and demonstrated that the superpowers could begin to slow the arms race, if not stop it altogether.

A decade later, in 1972, the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, known as SALT I, established ceilings on long-range nuclear missiles and bombers. But the limits that it set were higher than either side's actual arsenal, thereby legalizing a further arms buildup.

A second strategic treaty in 1979, SALT II, called for minor reductions by the Soviet Union. But it contained a major loophole: Although the pact limited the number of missiles each side could have, it did not restrict the number of warheads each missile could carry.

As a result, by taking advantage of new multiple-warhead technology, the superpowers were able during the 1980s to quadruple the number of strategic warheads they had targeted on one another atop essentially the same number of missiles.

By contrast, the START accord now nearing completion is to be the first strategic arms treaty to actually reduce the total number of weapons that the two sides have amassed--by 30% overall, with a 50% cut in the most threatening ballistic missile warheads.

Negotiations to cut conventional weapons arsenals in Europe also have a checkered history. Talks between NATO and the Warsaw Pact nations achieved virtually nothing in 15 years before they were superseded by the CFE negotiations in 1988.

Even the new CFE treaty, which provides for the largest negotiated arms reductions in world history, has drawn its share of criticism. Skeptics say it has taken far too long and in itself moved only marginally toward making the world a safer place.

In some cases, the negotiations have been overtaken by events. Last February, for example, negotiators set manpower limits of 195,000 each for U.S. and Soviet troops in the central zone of Europe.

But by July, those ceilings were obsolete. The new East European governments and the reunited Germany are forcing all Soviet forces out of the region by 1994. As a result, the manpower limits were dropped out of the treaty; only weapons will be affected by the pact.

Arms talks can also delay cuts that a country wants to make on its own.

Soviet officials say part of the reason that Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev announced unilateral cuts of half a million troops in 1988 was that he feared that leaving such reductions to negotiations would actually delay their implementation.

Similarly, U.S. officials speculate that if the United States had tried to negotiate the withdrawal of thousands of short-range nuclear warheads from Europe a decade ago rather than unilaterally bringing them home as it has, the weapons might still be there.

The Debate

How much can the world expect from arms control negotiations? Are they worth the effort?

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