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The year ahead: Europe will try to rope in superpower tension

By Joseph C. Harsch / December 30, 1983

World affairs in 1984 will continue to be overshadowed and influenced by the existence of huge Soviet and American nuclear arsenals probably capable of destroying the human race. But the danger of Soviet-American hostility triggering these arsenals may actually recede.

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A minor incident at the end of 1983 gives one reason why this can happen.

The leaders of Greece and Romania joined in an appeal to their respective sponsors, the United States and the Soviet Union, to return to the bargaining table and resume efforts to reduce and restrain the nuclear danger to all.

Greece is a member of the NATO alliance. Romania is a member of the Warsaw Pact. They live on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain. But they share concern about the nuclear danger that is inherent in Soviet-American rivalry.

There is no reason to think that either NATO or the Warsaw Pact will break up during 1984. But a trend already prominent in 1983 is likely to continue and grow stronger during the year ahead. That trend is for the European clients of the two rival superpowers to push those superpowers toward accommodation rather than conflict; and for the small clients to cooperate as much as possible in that direction.

It is noteworthy in this respect that East and West Germany have not distanced themselves from each other in pace with their sponsors, but seem to be seeking closer associations. The old year ended with an almost total abandonment of any top-level dialogue between Moscow and Washington, but with many dialogues among the clients.

It is equally noteworthy that the year opens with the Chinese in the process of normalizing their relations with Moscow while continuing to be in association with the US. The prospect is that China will continue during the year ahead to adjust its relations with the two superpowers in the direction of an almost neutral position between the two.

How far the Chinese will go depends probably on the concessions Moscow might make. China wants much more than Moscow is yet willing to give. If the Soviets would withdraw from Afghanistan and diminish their support for Vietnam's expansion in Indochina, the Chinese would presumably be willing to reopen formal diplomatic relations.

If, in addition, the Soviets would reduce their armed forces along the Chinese border, the Chinese might be willing to be almost friendly. At present there are 52 Soviet divisions on the Chinese border, plus four more in Mongolia. All 56 are amply backed by nuclear weapons.

Soviet-US rivalry will continue throughout the year to be the central feature in world affairs, with both China and the Europeans working toward relative independence of the two. Both would like to distance themselves from the rivalry , while knowing there is no such thing as total escape should the two superpowers sink into war.

But might there be a break in the sense of tension that marks the US-Soviet relationship at the turn of the year?

President Reagan's rhetoric is as outspokenly anti-Soviet as ever, but he did not reimpose economic sanctions over the downing of the Korean airliner. US grain flows regularly every day to Soviet ports. A dialogue continues at lower levels.

Anything is possible during a presidential election year. If Soviet leader Yuri Andropov recovers his vigor, or if a new leader emerges in Moscow, a summit is not inconceivable. A president who goes to Peking in April is capable of going to Moscow afterward. Richard Nixon did that in 1972. It helped in his reelection landslide. Peacemaking can be a powerful political asset.