What to do about the public's nuclear angst?

Western publics no longer trust nuclear weapons. And they no longer trust the military and political elites to whom they blithely delegated all defense decisions once upon a time.

The 350,000 anti-nuclear marchers in Amsterdam last year and the 700,000 nuclear freezers in Central Park this year amply illustrate the breakdown of the old defense consensus in democratic societies. So do polls that show deep nuclear anxiety within normally passive silent majorities. They worry the rebuffed elites.

Quite a few of those strategists acknowledge that soaring military expenditures are a burden on economy and conscience alike in this day and age. They find it healthy that democratic citizens for the most part simply tolerate and do not love their arsenals. Yet they regard as unjustified and unfair the definition of the issue by nuclear pacifists and freezers as annihilation vs. moral responsibility, soulless institutions vs. vulnerable individuals, Dr. Strangeloves vs. the child next door.

Broadly, there are two conflicting schools of thought among the experts about how to deal with the breakdown of the old consensus. Their proponents might be termed the ignorers, and the seekers of a new consensus. Both argued their cases - inconclusively - at the 24th annual conference of the International Institute for Strategic Studies at The Hague in mid-September.

The ignorers tend to regard grass-roots anti-nuclear movements - the most dramatic manifestation of public disquiet - as a temporary fad that will wax a few years and then wane into obscurity. Their counsel to the Reagan administration is to ignore the demonstrations and mount a public relations campaign that will educate the public into supporting the administration's nuclear programs.

A quite different position is taken by those within the strategic community who contend that public involvement in nuclear issues is here to stay, and must be engaged in a new consensus. This group believes that nuclear angst is fanned rather than diminshed by repeated Reagan administration talk of nuclear war scenarios.

If the first view is widely held within the Reagan administration, the second view is widely held within European governments. It is most clearly articulated by such people as Kurt Biedenkopf, a professor and deputy chairman of the West German (conservative) Christian Democratic Union.

As Biedenkopf sees it, a new generation of better educated young people who have not themselves experienced an urgent totalitarian threat no longer takes for granted the need for defense - and especially for a nuclear defense that threatens catastrophe if it breaks down. This is all the more true in a period of economic stagnation, when soaring nuclear weapons costs are viewed as stealing money from job stimulation and environmental protection.

Under these circumstances debate rages in the strategic community. The ignorers regard the would-be consensus molders as incorrigible doves. The would-be consensus molders regard the ignorers as incorrigible hawks. And antinuclear activists dismiss both camps as evaders of the crucial moral issues.

What then is to be done? Beyond public relations (whether recommended as crusade or restraint) the strategists are toying with three basic ideas:

* Reduced nuclear reliance;

* Arms control;

* Restoration of some larger vision.

A reduced nuclear reliance in favor of conventional defense in Western Europe - the geographical focal point of much of the debate - is advocated by both the ignorers and the new consensus builders.

Proposals range from a blanket pledge of no first use of nuclear weapons to withdrawal of short-range battlefield nuclear weapons from Europe. The hitch, however, is always the increased cost that an adequate conventional defense is assumed to require, and the assumed reluctance of taxpayers to underwrite it.

Nuclear arms control is a course the consensus builders continue to advocate, both as a stabilizer of the arms race itself and as a reassurance to the public that it will not be hastening its own obliteration by its own defense measures. This evaluation is scorned by ignorers, who regard arms control instead as a hobbling of Western military innovations and a legitimation of Soviet military buildups.

Beyond arms policy itself, restoration of a larger vision is advocated by some diplomats. They argue that the original European nuclear angst of the 1950s was allayed only by the imaginative ideal of a united Europe. This ideal has now evaporated, as has the faith of the earlier era of economic prosperity in a constant rise in the standard of living. Nothing positive has replaced these goals, and the sheer warding off of a potential Soviet attack that isn't regarded as very probable anyway has failed to inspire citizens.

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