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Future of the Atlantic alliance: unity . . . in diversity?

The alliance problems of yesteryear have eased -- with little public notice being taken. And the problems of tomorrow are looming -- with equally little public notice. Both phenomena deserve a closer look.

The former is demonstrated by the smoothness of Euromissile deployment in the linchpin country of West Germany last year. The latter is manifested in European qualms about United States plans for ``star wars'' -- the Strategic Defense Initiative aimed at developing antimissile weapons.

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First the missile deployment in the make-or-break country of West Germany. It was always clear that if West Germany deployed, NATO would deploy. And if West Germany didn't polarize politically, Europe would not polarize. Here as in other European stationing countries (except for the Netherlands) pre-deployment opinion polls always showed a majority against stationing only if stationing meant no further arms-control negotiations. Popular majorities reluctantly favored deployment if the choice offered was no reduction in Soviet nuclear superiority in Europe through the SS-20.

When Moscow failed to make any real last-minute offer before deployment began, and the Soviets rather than the Americans broke off the superpower talks, European populations accepted stationing passively. The pressure on US-European relations was thus eased, since transatlantic differences always had concerned US readiness to negotiate with the Soviet Union rather than missile deployment per se.

In 1985, with half of NATO's planned 108 Pershing II missiles already in place in West Germany, and with the peace movement quiescent, it is clear that the deployment has not led to the feared polarization. Basically, the initial judgment of Chancellor Helmut Kohl has been borne out: that once the first NATO missiles were on the ground and Armageddon didn't break out the next day, popular war anxiety and opposition to the missiles would fade.

The evolution of public opinion on this subject offers clues about the future limits and tolerances of nuclear issues within the alliance.

Moscow's boycott of arms control talks last year and the East's retaliation for NATO de-ployments -- it put (more) Soviet SS-21s, -22s, and -23s into Eastern Europe -- meant the Kremlin neither offered the West Europeans a carrot nor waved a particularly menacing stick at them. When cast against the simultaneous toning down of bellicose language in the US, the Soviet walkout from the Geneva talks belied the Soviet claim that Moscow was more reasonable than Washington. At the same time the new SS-21s, -22s, and -23s added little to what was already a threat to pound Western Europe to radioactive rubble several times over.

The worst sanction the Soviets might have applied to the key capital of Bonn would have been a deterioration of East-West German relations -- but this they were unable to effect. In the spring of 1984 Moscow attempted to revive the hostile charges of West German ``revan-chism'' (attempts to roll back Soviet-bloc borders) that it had abandoned in the d'etente of the 1970s. But East Berlin declined to go along.

East German leader Erich Honecker blandly went ahead with planning his maiden visit to West Germany for September 1984 -- despite Soviet fulminations against both Bonn and Washington. And East Germany let it be known it was not happy about taking -- or paying for -- the various new Soviet missiles.

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Mr. Honecker eventually postponed his trip to West Germany. But by then no West German believed any longer that civil East-West German relations were hostage to NATO deployments. And as Moscow ate its words and returned to negotiations with President Reagan after his reelection, no West European believed any longer that overall East-West relations were hostage to NATO deployments.

Moreover, Washington's suspicion of Bonn was allayed; in retrospect the US saw some merit to Bonn's argument that good East-West German relations are in the long run more seductive to East than to West Germans.

In consequence, the Western European and especially West German antinuclear movement lost much of its urgency and its ability to set the agenda of political debate. Discouragement set in within the movement.

Stationing of the first cruise missiles in Italy and Britain went equally smoothly last year. Belgium looks as if it will finally come through with its assigned deployments. And even if the Netherlands never accepts its quota, the damage to NATO won't be all that great. As allied governments see it, NATO has proved its capacity for unity in implementing a politically difficult decision. Moscow was not able to blackmail Europe with a Soviet nuclear superiority in the European theater, as West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt had feared when he sounded the alarm about the SS-20 buildup.

Other disputes among the Western allies remain. The question of fair burden-sharing in financing NATO is going to be around for a long time. So is the concomitant US suspicion that Europe isn't pulling its full weight.

But the effective resolution of the deployment issue has removed the vitriol from transatlantic relations. It has calmed the debate over no-first-use of nuclear weapons for now -- since such ``technological'' problems are always the result rather than the cause of allied political tensions, and once political strains are eased, the technological disputes fade in importance.

Remaining allied differences can be dealt with in everyday diplomatic fashion, out of the limelight. NATO countries have been working out common restrictions on transfer of militarily useful technology to the Soviet Union, for example (while avoiding the kind of unilateral US restrictions on civilian technology that so strained US-European relations in 1982).

Strengthening of conventional defenses is proceeding, especially air defense. Coordinated NATO responses to threats outside the immediate European area are not a burning issue at present.

The calming of these old disputes, however, doesn't begin to address an incipient new problem that could make the missile feud look like child's play. That new problem is ``star wars.''

The Europeans are by now resigned to the fact that the US is going to pursue the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) regardless of European misgivings. They therefore think it futile to oppose the project; it's not worth the political cost of making an enemy of Ronald Reagan when he will be out of office by the time decisions about SDI hardware have to be made.

And they are grateful that ``star wars'' plans have scared the Soviets sufficiently to bring Moscow back to arms control negotiations.

But behind the scenes the Europeans worry about the implications of SDI. The French are bluntest in voicing objections. Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is the most nuanced in hoping for a firebreak between the current wide-open research (which the Europeans approve) and future tests (which the Europeans want to ensure don't violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic-Missile Treaty). The West Germans are the most positive in public, but they define the criteria for their support carefully.

The European concerned are fourfold: (1) a second-class security for Europe; (2) destabilization and a greater risk of war; (3) an actual decrease in US security once the Soviet Union also develops antimissile and especially high-orbit antisatellite weapons; and (4) permanent European technological backwardness as compared with the US (and Japan).

A ``decoupling'' of Europe from the US, with inferior security for Europe could arise from any deployed strategic defense against high-trajectory missiles like intercontinental and SS-20 ballistic missiles. This area of SDI research is the most promising -- but its success would leave ground-hugging cruise and low-flying ballistic missiles unchallenged. Since the Soviet Union would presumably imitate within five years or so whatever strategic defense the US developed, such an arrangement could effectively neutralize the superpowers' arsenals and leave Europe singularly vulnerable to those cruises and short-range ballistic missiles.

In practice, the Europeans worry, this could permit nuclear blackmail of them by Moscow. It would clearly increase the importance of the existing Soviet superiority in European-theater conventional weapons, in part by making British and French nuclear forces obsolete. This would render the NATO threat of nuclear escalation to prevent conventional defeat in Europe no longer credible; there would be, by default, the policy of no first use of nuclear weapons, a policy NATO has so far stoutly resisted.

The second European concern is global rather than European. Destabilization could arise from calling into question the entire basis of nuclear deterrence (war prevention) of the past 40 years: assured retaliation. The Europeans are skeptical that SDI will ever fulfill Mr. Reagan's initial vision of a comprehensive defense of populations (as distinct from a focused defense of weapons sites). But the temporary lead the US would presumably build up over the Soviet Union in working toward that strategic nuclear defense could trigger panicky Soviet reactions in any crisis; if the nuclear balance was tipping more and more against Moscow, there would be a strong temptation to the Kremlin to prevent things from getting worse.

The third European concern arises because the US is far more dependent than are the Soviets on geosynchronous satellites for military and reconnaissance missions. At present these satellites are immune to attack. But once both sides have developed high-orbit satellite killers, the vulnerability of geosynchronous satellites will be a proportionally greater loss for the US than for the USSR. Europeans are asking if it wouldn't be better to ban testing of high-orbit satellite killers -- rather than gamble on US technological ability to stay significantly ahead of the Soviet Union.

The fourth European concern tempers the other three. Fear of getting left behind technologically makes the Europeans want to join in pioneering today's scientific frontiers.

So far the European publics are not engaged on this issue. Forebodings are basically confined to governments -- ironically, to governments that have staunchly supported US defense policies in general and Euromissile deployment in particular.

And NATO's experience with missile stationing suggests that European publics can easily be mobilized against Western security policy under three conditions: introduction of new Western weapons in what is seen as a qualitative change; breakdown of the East-West dialogue; and perceived US intransigence.

If there is stalemate at the Geneva talks after a year or two, and if SDI is not up for bargaining at the test stage -- Reagan administration statements on the subject have been contradictory -- then all three of these conditions might again prevail. And if popular war Angst rose again, European governments might well feel compelled politically to oppose SDI in public.

The US may in fact decide that other reasons compel it to press ahead with strategic defense without putting SDI on the negotiating table. If so, there will be a price to pay in Europe.

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What impact on superpower relations? 3. Iran-Iraq war

What role for the US in Persian Gulf? 4. Budget deficit, trade, and the dollar

The economics of foreign policy 5. The Philippines

What future for democracy? 6. Population growth

Critical North-South issue? 7. Future of the Atlantic alliance

Unity in diversity? 8. Intelligence operations

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This weekly eight-part series is keyed to the Foreign Policy Association's ``Great Decisions'' program, which is designed to help Americans become better informed about critical foreign policy issues.