In an effort unique in the annals of alliances, NATO is trying to avert an attack by a member of an adversary alliance against a fellow member of that alliance.
This is the meaning of the NATO foreign ministers' stern warning in Brussels Dec. 12 that a Soviet invasion of Poland would end detente.
It is not yet clear whether the superimposing of a NATO-Soviet confrontation onto the Soviet-Polish confrontation will deter the Russians. But it is already clear that it stings.
On the day of the NATO notice of retaliation for any invasion, East Germany -- as the stalking horse for the Soviet bloc -- threatened counterrelation. If the West ended detente and ended the preferential treatment of East German imports into the European Community (EC), the official East German news agency ADN declared, this could also end Western access across East Germany to West Berlin.
In the harshest Soviet-bloc message to the West yet, ADN asserted: "Everything -- but everything that . . . has been achieved in past years could be at stake."
A countermove against West Berlin would be serious, indeed. It would recall the worst cold-war days after World War II. In invoking this specter, East Germany was deliberately suggesting to West Germany that Bonn could lose the most from any end of detente. The Soviet bloc could lose only Western credits and technology; West Germany, on the contrary, could lose all the East-West German human contacts of the 1970s and even the links to West Berlin of the 1960 s.
So far, however, East Berlin's retort seems to be less a considered reaction to the NATO stance than a reflex warning to the West not to go too far. Despite the Polish crisis, the exposed city of West Berlin has remained notably calm -- as the foreign ministers of West Germany, the United States, Great Britain, and France observed in their traditional "Berlin dinner" on the eve of the regular NATO foreign ministers' meeting Dec. 11 and 12. Nor would Moscow be likely to stir up trouble over West Berlin gratuitously when the Red Army was already occupied on two other fronts, Afghanistan and Poland.
In addition, the East German threat seems to be less of a response to the overall NATO warning and more of a reflex to one specific Western press report that Western sanctions might include a halt to preferential treatment of East German exports to the EC. The US secretary of state and West German foreign minister both denied the report, and West German politicians of every stripe rejected such an idea. The current handling of East German products as part of internal EC trade arises from the West German constitutional presumption that Germany (both East and West) is one nation; this preferential tariff treatment is therefore guaranteed in the original EC treaty.
A further sign of Soviet-bloc discomfiture over the NATO position is the surprising Soviet press report of Italian demurral from NATO's firm stand -- and the simultaneous East German press castigation of West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher as one of the most hard-line participants in the NATO council. These would seem to indicate that Moscow has given up hopes of wooing the key Western European country, West Germany, away from the US on a tough reaction to any Soviet invasion of Poland.
Indeed, the unity of the Western foreign ministers was a conspicuous feature of the NATO council -- and was meant to be, as part of the warning signal to the Soviet Union. In their current attempt at specific deterrence the Western allies are determined not to repeat the mistakes (including disunity) that they made at the time of the Soviet invasions of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and of Afghanistan a year ago.
The US mistake in 1968, as seen by one diplomat involved in Washington's evaluations, was not to take seriously enough the possibility of a Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. In early August 1968, the State Department accepted at face value the Soviet-Czech reconciliation sealed with a public kiss -- and dissolved its Czechoslovak task force 10 days before Soviet troops occupied Prague. Washington then had no reaction ready when the Soviet invasion caught Czechs, Americans, and almost everyone else by surprise. America's preoccupation with the Vietnam war and anti-war demonstrations -- headlines about demonstrators at the Democratic convention in Chicago quickly supplanted headlines about Czechoslovakia's plight in US newspapers -- further diluted the American response.
A year ago the United States did see the danger and did make an effort to deter the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But Washington's specific warnings fell on deaf ears -- partly, one participant in this month's Brussels talks thought, because of Washington's earlier spurious wolf-crying over the Soviet brigade in Cuba. Moscow then did not take seriously the US wolf-crying over Afghanistan -- and after the invasion professed astonishment that the US was so upset by the move.
After the fact, too, the Western European allies -- alarmed by President Carter's shoot-from-the-hip reactions to both Afghanistan and the seizure of US hostages in Iran -- helped reinforce Soviet complacence by distancing themselves from the United States. Among other gestures, West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt waited three weeks and finished a vacation before making any major condemnation of the invasion.
This time, all the Western allies are resolved, it will be different. The Soviet Union will know in advance, beyond a shadow of doubt, that it will end detente for years to come -- with both the United States and Western Europe -- if it invades Poland.
Both France and West Germany, the main demurrers from US economic sanctions against Moscow after the invasion of Afghanistan, have thus made it clear that this time their economic interests in trade with the Soviet bloc would not stand in the way of economic penalties. The two countries warned generally in a joint communique last February that any new Soviet invasion of another country would mean the end of detente, and in recent days they have repeated this warning in bilateral Soviet contacts with specific reference to nearby Poland. They have further signaled their evaluation of a Soviet invasion of Poland as the main danger by signing a NATO communique that does not even repeat the standard call for (American) ratification of SALT II. (It does call for continuation of the "SALT process.")
The NATO council of ministers has not decided exactly what countermeasures it would apply under what circumstances of a direct or ambiguous Soviet invasion of Poland. It has drawn up a list of possible tough economic, diplomatic, and domestic military responses, however, and it has agreed to convene a foreign ministers' meeting immediately to choose from the list in case of an invasion. (Even a foreign ministers' meeting turned out to be impossible in the allied disarray after the invasion of Afghanistan.)
The deterrent signal to Moscow, NATO hopes, is a clear one.