Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

For W. Europe, Reykjavik marked the end of an era

By Elizabeth PondStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 4, 1986


It would be hard to exaggerate the shock wave Reykjavik sent through Western Europe. With one stroke - the setting of the 10-year goal of zero ballistic missiles - last month's superpower summit in Iceland threw into question Washington's entire postwar strategy of ensuring European security with an American nuclear umbrella. ``Reykjavik is already a turning point in history, in East-West relations and in alliance policy,'' comments a West German involved in formulating security policy for Bonn's center-right government. ``The healthy thing in Reykjavik is that we saw clearly what the Europeans must do. We saw that the superpowers are ready to negotiate over the heads of the Europeans, ready to call into question the entire strategy we have been operating on.''

Skip to next paragraph

More diplomatically, deputy parliamentary whip and conservative foreign-policy spokesman Volker R"uhe says, ``We need [to have] a real strategy discussion in the alliance and not just stumble'' from one deadline to the next in security policy.

What troubles these men - as it also does American NATO Commander Bernard Rogers and Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee - is the potential loss of Washington's nuclear guarantee for Western Europe. For four decades this nuclear guarantee has granted Europe its longest period of peace in this century by warning the Soviet adversary that if it ever uses its conventional superiority to overrun Western Europe, the NATO alliance will, as a last resort, escalate to nuclear weapons.

In line with this, American nuclear weapons for the European theater have been designed not only for nuclear ``deterrence'' (dissuading Moscow from ever using its theater nuclear weapons first, since the retaliation would be so terrible), but also for actual ``war-fighting'' should Western Europe start to lose a conventional war. Policy on intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) thus differs markedly from policy on American strategic, or intercontinental, nuclear weapons. The former are explicitly intended for ``first use'' in an emergency, while the latter are basically reserved for retaliatory use - if, for example, the Soviet Union ever responded to NATO theater nuclear use by firing strategic nuclear weapons directly at the United States.

The potential of such escalation, it is believed, makes irrational - and therefore deters - what might otherwise seem to be a rational Soviet option of conventional invasion of a weaker Europe.

This American willingness to risk Chicago to save Hamburg, as the shorthand phrase has it, was ``credible'' throughout the 1950s and early '60s. Chicago wasn't really endangered, since the US still had clear nuclear superiority over the Soviets - and threatened ``massive retaliation'' against the Soviet Union should Moscow overstep the line in Europe.

As the Soviet Union built up its own nuclear arsenal, however, it began looking riskier and riskier for Chicago, and some Europeans - especially France's Charles de Gaulle - began to doubt that the US really would use its nuclear weapons just for the sake of Europe. In the jargon, there was fear that American security and European security were becoming ``decoupled.''

To silence these doubts, NATO added in 1969 the intermediate level of theater nuclear weapons in a new policy of ``flexible [conventional or nuclear] response.'' The credibility of the nuclear umbrella was thus deemed to have been restored, since it was assumed that Moscow would prefer to keep any nuclear war limited to Europe and would not obliterate Chicago and invite reciprocal obliteration of Moscow.

The credibility of this policy remained high in the 1970s, since the West maintained theater nuclear superiority in Europe. The Soviet Union had more or less caught up with the US at the intercontinental nuclear level, but not yet at theater level. Any NATO escalation by first use of nuclear weapons would therefore have given NATO the advantage on the battlefield.