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Moving away from zero-zero

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The debate over medium-range missiles in Europe is full of irony but also of grave danger to the Atlantic Alliance. NATO's twin-track 1979 decision to negotiate to reduce the Soviet SS-20s and conditionally to deploy 572 counter-missiles risks being derailed on both tracks. It could be a victim of the West German election, Washington rigidity, and skillful Soviet manipulation.

It is time to get back to the basics.

The NATO decision was intended to reassure the Europeans, and especially the Germans. The steady deployment of Soviet SS-20s with three MIRVs on each missile (now totaling 340 missiles, two-thirds aimed at Europe) troubled them in two ways. One was the military imbalance in Europe if NATO had no countermissile. The second was the specter of a ''decoupling'' of the US strategic force from the defense of Europe, under conditions of Soviet strategic parity and its medium-range missile monopoly. The US missiles (108 Pershing IIs and 464 cruise missiles) would both redress the balance and recommit the US, enhancing the deterrent and reassurance.

Negotiation for reductions of Soviet missiles was an alternate route. After a slow start, Reagan scored with his zero-zero option - none for either side. It appealed to a public increasingly worried about nuclear weapons and talk of ''war fighting.''

But the German election has enabled the Soviets to regain the initiative. With Schmidt out, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) left wing now has more influence; SPD candidate Vogel, while not rejecting the NATO decision, is appealing to the West German concern about deployment. The Kohl government sticks with the zero-zero position while hinting at a compromise, which Franz-Josef Strauss, the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) leader, has publicly urged.

The Soviets' aims are clear - and also dual. One is to block deployment of NATO missiles and keep their monopoly. They stress the threat to them of the eight-minute warning time of the Pershings, ignoring the similar sevenfold threat to Western Europe from their SS-20s. Their other objective is to divide the US and the Europeans. Their offer to cut back the SS-20s to 162 to match the British and French missiles (rejected by both Britain and France) would still leave them 486 warheads and NATO none, but it suggests flexibility in contrast with the Reagan rigidity. In blatantly seeking to influence the German election, the Soviets have been both soothing and menacing with Gromyko's visit to Bonn and Vogel's to Moscow.

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