THE Bush administration's decision not to modernize the aging Lance missile is welcomed. The next logical step for the United States and NATO is to propose negotiations with the Soviet Union aimed at eliminating all ground-based nuclear weapons from Europe. The administration rightly decided that pressing for Lance modernization would be futile in view of Germany's unwillingness to deploy the missile and Congress's plans to deny the funding request. Allied and congressional opposition suggest that in today's environment, ground-based nuclear weapons in Europe represent a political and military anachronism.
The revolutionary events of the past months have undermined the military and political rationales for continued deployment of nuclear forces in Western Europe. Until recently, nuclear weapons enabled NATO to offset the Soviet advantage in conventional forces. Today, however, even the US Joint Chiefs of Staff agree that unilateral Soviet troop reductions and the effective collapse of the Warsaw Pact mean that NATO could successfully repel a Soviet attack without nuclear weapons. The new balance of forces to be formalized in the Vienna agreement on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) further removes any need to for new land-based nuclear weapons.
Deploying short-range nuclear forces in West Germany is no longer necessary. German reunification is inevitable, and Czechoslovakia is today led by its most revered dissident. And the longer-range follow-on to Lance would be able to reach only additional targets in Solidarity-led Poland. As West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher said last November, such a missile is indeed ``laughable.''
The traditionally more important political rationale for ground-based nuclear forces in Europe is also now obsolete. With a sharply reduced Soviet threat, US nuclear weapons no longer fulfill their former function of reassuring European allies of the American commitment to their defense. Quite the opposite; their presence is a symbol of an era which has passed. US nuclear weapons in Europe thus threaten to become an increasing political liability for those still interested in Western cooperation for security.
This is not a new development. The weakness of military and political rationales for land-based nuclear weapons was apparent in early 1989 when the Atlantic Alliance engaged in its most recent debate over nuclear modernization. A political compromise reached during NATO's 40th anniversary summit last May temporarily defused the issue by postponing a modernization decision until 1992. The NATO heads of government also resolved that once a CFE agreement had been signed, Washington and Moscow would begin to negotiate a partial reduction in land-based nuclear missiles down to equal levels.
The political revolution in Eastern Europe has now outpaced NATO. Rather than settling for partial reductions and delaying talks, the US should propose to eliminate all land-based nuclear weapons in Europe by the time a CFE agreement has been implemented. By proposing such a ban, Washington can preempt a similar suggestion by Moscow and thus gain the political benefits of initiating this step toward nuclear disarmament.
An agreement to ban land-based nuclear weapons from Europe would also result in the verifiable elimination of an existing Soviet advantage. And it would underscore NATO's ability to adapt to the revolutionary transformation of Europe.
A ban on land-based nuclear weapons would further demonstrate that the major powers no longer put much value on these short-range forces. It would thus set a welcome example for other countries contemplating the acquisition of such weapons. This would be true not only for Third World countries standing at the nuclear threshold, but also for France and Britain which are about to embark on expensive nuclear modernization efforts.
Finally, the elimination of short-range nuclear forces in Europe would enable NATO to adopt a minimum-deterrence posture more appropriate to new political realities. Such a posture would retain sufficient nuclear forces in and near Europe to deal with unexpected contingencies. By emphasizing different ranges and deployment patterns, the remaining nuclear forces would also be more flexible to uncertainties that will likely prevail in Europe for some time to come.
In short, if the US takes the initiative today to ban land-based nuclear weapons from Europe, it can achieve important political benefits without sacrificing the military capabilities necessary for the new era emerging in Europe.