West Germany and the US
American-European relations probably never were as bad as some commentators thought last year. (Surely the honor of being ''the worst crisis in NATO history'' should be reserved for Charles de Gaulle's withdrawal of France from the military alliance in the 1960s.)Skip to next paragraph
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But relations were bad enough to raise diplomatic eyebrows quite high. And it took the re-election of West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl this month to bring them back to normal levels.
Dr. Kohl's fervent loyalty to President Reagan and the Americans does not by any means end disputes between NATO's two linchpin allies. But it should keep the various military and economic differences from magnifying each other to an emotional intensity that could do fundamental damage to bilateral relations or to the overall US-European alliance.
That is, on the West German side Dr. Kohl will now bear the full brunt of antimissile activism without trying to mediate somehow between this sentiment and the Americans. And on the American side, Washington will trust Dr. Kohl in a way it did not trust West Germany's Social Democrats.
This means the US and West German governments can focus all their energies on resolving their continuing differences of interest in a calm, pragmatic fashion, without being diverted by extraneous suspicions and resentments. In this ''year of the missile'' this is a great advantage, indeed.
But first, a little history, centered on the critical biennial years of 1977, 1979, and 1981.
In 1977 the Soviet Union began deploying a highly accurate three-warhead mobile Euromissile called the SS-20. In 1979 NATO countered with its own ''two-track'' Euromissile decision, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and the US refused to ratify SALT II. In 1981 President Ronald Reagan took office and Poland declared martial law.
The interplay of these events had unfortunate consequences, both for American-West German and for American-European relations.
The SS-20 posed a threat to Western Europe that differed qualitatively from that of its two-decades-old predecessors, the SS-4 and SS-5. Its 5,000-kilometer range enabled it to reach any point in Europe. Its precision made it ideal for destroying specific military targets (and not just inaccurate ''busting'' of cities). Its speed made defense against it impossible, while its mobility kept the SS-20 itself invulnerable.
NATO - which had had no nuclear missiles in Europe able to reach the Soviet Union since Washington pulled its Jupiters out of Turkey after the Cuban missile crisis - had nothing comparable.
In the old days of American nuclear superiority in strategic (intercontinental) nuclear weapons this disparity would not have mattered so much.
To be sure, NATO had for two decades based its defense against the much stronger Soviet-Warsaw Pact conventional forces on NATO superiority in theater nuclear weapons. That superiority was now turning into inferiority. More important, however, the ultimate guarantor of Europe's security had always been the threat that the US would retaliate for any Soviet invasion of Europe by shooting its ICBMs at Moscow. The Kremlin clearly would not risk such destruction of itself. Therefore ''deterrence'' - war prevention - reigned: The Russians would never attack Europe.
By the 1970s, however, the Soviet Union had built up its own strategic nuclear forces to ''parity'' with the US. Any American nuclear strike on the Soviet Union, retaliatory or not, would unleash an equally devastating Soviet strike on the US. The question arose of who might be deterred most in such a balance.