GETTING rid of nuclear weapons in central Europe is a goal all can support. But achieving a nuclear-free Europe is a complicated diplomatic and military matter, and the consequence is political struggle within the Western alliance. It's understandable that West Germans - whose backyards World War III would be fought in - want to lessen the potential for mass destruction. Chancellor Helmut Kohl is feeling the heat of that yearning. Faced with a possible ``red-green'' government of Social Democrats and Green Party candidates to his left, Christian Democrat Kohl wants to put off modernization of NATO's nuclear Lance missiles and move quickly on talks with the Soviet Union about getting rid of all battlefield nukes in Europe.
Britain, France, and the United States are more concerned about reducing such arsenals as part of overall disarmament, specifically evening out the Warsaw Pact's large advantage in troops, armored vehicles, artillery, and aircraft. Smaller nuclear arms are designed to make Moscow think twice about attacking the West.
In this case, there's no need to rush into arms control talks just to give Mr. Kohl domestic political relief. If nothing else, the recent violent crackdown in the Soviet republic of Georgia (including the use of poison gas that killed civilians) and this week's hastily called special session of the Communist Party's Central Committee in Moscow indicate that all is not sweetness and light in the land of glasnost and perestroika. It's still possible that Mikhail Gorbachev could fail and the bad old days of repression and threats to neighbors return.
In an address to the Nobel Institute earlier this year, veteran US arms control negotiator Paul Nitze gave a clear and persuasive reminder of what the primary objective in arms control should always be: enhancing stability.
``We must always remember to base our security policies on Soviet capabilities and behavior rather than hopes or expressed intentions,'' he said. ``And, to date, their military capabilities have not changed substantially.''
That's sound advice and an important warning from the man who negotiated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Nuclear arsenals - smaller weapons and large - should be reduced. But the bottom line must be true security, not lesser numbers for their own sake or politics.