The stakes in the European arms talks

On Nov. 30 in Geneva, the US will start negotiations with the Soviet Union about limiting nuclear weapons in Europe. The stakes are broader than the agenda. Any progress on arms control is likely to be slow and tortuous; yet these first direct talks could be critical in shaping US-Soviet relations during the Reagan years. Beyond that they will certainly be highly inportant for America's relations with its European allies.

The issue of theater nuclear forces (TNF) has been on the minds of Europeans for four years. It was first raised by Chancellor Schmidt in 1977, as the Soviets were beginning to deploy their new, mobile medium-range SS-20s, with three warheads each, targeted on Europe. (They now have some 180 in place.) Not until December 1979 did the NATO allies respond by taking a "two-track" decision on the issue.They agreed to deploy some 572 Pershing IIs and cruise missiles (which could hit the USSR) starting in 1983, but to negotiate first with the Soviets to try to limit their SS-20s and the planned NATO weapons. For months the European allies have been pressing the administration to begin the negotiations. With their start, the focus will now turn to how they are conducted.

The NATO decision reflected the ambivalence of European attitudes toward TNFs. With the Soviets overtaking the US in strategic forces, many Europeans worried about the effect on the US nuclear umbrella for Europe. Might the US try to limit any future war to European territory and "decouple" it from the US homeland? Would the SS-20 missiles targeted on Europe give the Soviets political leverage if not countered? Deploying US medium-range missiles would serve two purposes. It would offset the Soviet weapons; and it also would avoid the "decoupling" of the US strategic forces since the Soviets would surely treat a strike by US missiles based in Europe the same as one from the US.

The NATO decision has stirred up opposition in several countries, most notably West Germany, where it has brought together the left wing of the SPD and antinuclear groups. But doubts and skepticism extend more widely. Europeans in general are convinced that any nuclear war would obliterate Europe. Their overriding interest is stable deterrence -- not war-fighting. For a decade, "ostpolitik" (detente) has meant tranquillity in Europe, free from the crises and tensions of the past.Talk of limited nuclear war and neutron bombs evokes images of hostilities and a European holocaust rather than stable deterrence.

Thus many Europeans wonder whether new nuclear weapons will needlessly disturb the situation. Are they necessary? Won't existing weapons deter the Soviets? Playing on these feelings, the Soviets have stressed peace and the desire for talks (while continuing to deploy missiles) in contrast with the US focus on rearming to redress the balance.

To be effective, the TNF negotiations must either achieve an agreed balance or, failing that, convince the moderate public that the fault lies with the Soviets. In the negotiations, the Soviets will surely try to exploit European doubts and to divide the US and its allies. They will claim their SS-20s merely offset other NATO systems, that new US weapons will upset the balance, and that the agenca of discussions must be broadened. Their proposal for a freeze -- keeping their weapons in place and blocking NATO deployment -- could confuse public opinion and make it harder for governments to deploy the missiles if the negotiations drag on.

Beyond the specifice TNF issue, the allies will be judging the negotiations in the light of a broader concern. They look to the US for a coherent, steady approach to the Soviet Union. As they see it, an adequate strategy must combine firm constraints with inducements; it must reflect self-confidence while avoiding needless confrontation; it must keep a dialogue going if only to reduce the risks of conflict. They were not happy with the Carter policy. It seemed vacillating and often confused.

But so far the Reagan administration has not done much better. Its harsh rhetoric, and seeming reluctance to negotiate; its rapid arms buildup without a clear guiding strategy, combined with lifting the grain embargo and rejecting the draft; its narrow view of the third world and Middle East only in East-West terms -- these do not add up to the consistent and assured foreign policy the Europeans would like to see. But most still hope for improvement.

They will watch the handling of the TNF negotiations for clues on this question. Is the administration developing a clearer concept of the relation between defense and deterrence on arms control and other aspects of its policy? Is it learning the difference between firm assurance and truculence? Has it finally worked out better procedures for orderly decisionmaking? And above all, does it seriously seek to consult with allies and take account of their priorities and interests?

Handling these negotiations so as to advance US interests with the Soviets and at the same time to solidify the alliance will not be easy. It will take more skill and empathy than the administration has shown thus far in its conduct of foreign policy -- witness the Middle East. But there may be signs of more flexibility -- in Secretary Haig's speeches in Berlin and the UN and in the President's letter to Brezhnev. If so, that should help in the effort to keep the West reasonably unified in dealing with the Soviet Union, despite some real differences in priorities and perspectives.

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