Why US, Europe are at odds on interim arms control solution

All in all, it's a good thing the pressure for an ''interim solution'' in Euromissile arms control is coming so visibly from the Europeans, against White House resistance.

If the Reagan administration had itself initiated an interim solution, it would probably have encountered strong European suspicion. It would have been viewed by many a man in the street as a trick to ensure the stationing of some, even if not all, of the planned new American missiles in Europe.

The confusion is perhaps understandable. The twists and turns of arms control policy have matched the twists and turns of the original NATO deployment plans in their complexity. And on no European issue is there a wider gap between public and professional perceptions.

Thus, the original 1979 NATO decision to counter the Soviet SS-20s (333-plus missiles with 1,000-plus warheads deployed since 1977) with new NATO missiles ( 572 weapons and warheads from 1983-1988) arose from a European request that NATO do something about the new Soviet threat. (Simultaneously, NATO proposed arms control negotiations to remove the SS-20s and waive the new NATO missiles). European and American diplomats and officials take for granted the European initiative to deploy the American missiles.

European public opinion, however, has largely come to regard the new NATO missiles as an American project pressed on the Europeans. This is primarily a result of what seemed to be early Reagan administration readiness to contemplate fighting a nuclear war limited to Europe.

The same dichotomy prevails in the area of arms control.In the view of European diplomats, the Reagan administration has turned around quite remarkably - under the constant badgering of the Europeans - from its initial opposition to arms control.

''At the beginning,'' observed one European diplomat with extensive experience in dealing with Washington, ''the administration was - the word I usually use is 'cool,' but really they were anti-arms control.''

The administration kept arguing, the diplomat recalled, that only after the United States had built up lots of new military hardware could it afford to talk with the Soviet Union about arms reductions. It also feared that negotiations would develop a momentum of their own, with pressures for arms control success, regardless of the military cost.

The diplomat then listed a series of arms control conflicts between the US and Europe in which Washington finally yielded to European demands and embraced policies contrary to its original instincts.

The first was the conference on disarmament in Europe, which the Europeans began promoting to the Reagan team as soon as the 1980 election returns were in. Washington finally agreed to join its allies in demanding such a conference. The conference has not yet taken place, but the Western allies are still united in requesting it.

The second was continuation of the Helsinki accords review conference in Madrid. The US did not break off this conference, as the early Reagan administration had wanted to do to rap Soviet knuckles over the Afghanistan invasion. The Madrid conference is still going on, and has, in fact, been extensively used by the West as a forum for publicizing Soviet violations of human rights.

Then there was the initial American disinclination to enter either Euromissile (intermediate-range) or strategic (inter-continental-range) arms control talks with the Soviets at all. The Europeans, and especially the West Germans, again lobbied hard in Washington for negotiations.

They argued that the sudden revival of the antinuclear movement in Europe after 20 years of dormancy coincided with the Reagan administration's hard-line condemnation of Moscow and Washington's eager public speculation about nuclear-war fighting. The antinuclear movement would spread and make new NATO deployments politically impossible, they asserted, unless Washington showed some sign of interest in arms control.

Washington acceded, opening the Euromissile control talks with the Soviets in Geneva in fall of 1981, and the strategic START talks in spring of 1982. In addition, Washington finally responded this month to European prodding in presenting a draft ban on chemical weapons in Geneva.

To some extent the US, in designing its opening Euromissile ''zero option'' position, also let itself be guided by European governments' views on the need to appeal to European public opinion. Under this first proposal, NATO would deploy no new missiles if the Soviet Union would dismantle all its intermediate-range missiles.

Washington's responsiveness to European views on Euromissile arms control was somewhat muddied, however, by the sudden proposal of ''zero option'' by the hard-line wing of the Reagan administration - with the proviso that there must be no fallback compromise whatsoever. The strategy here was to induce a deadlock that would kill arms control.

Again, this interpretation of developments was the professional, but not the public, perception. And it is this gap that could have led to European public suspicion of any American-initiated departure from zero option. The zero option was always seen by the professionals (those who support arms control, that is) as a good maximum position to take into the bargaining process. A departure from zero option was viewed all along as necessary, however, if the US is in fact negotiating in good faith toward a mutual compromise, rather than just trying to sabotage arms control at the negotiations.

The European antinuclear movement, though - in contrast to professional diplomats - has always viewed the zero option not as an opening position, but only as a public relations ploy. It has regarded the proposal as unrealistic because it would require Moscow to scrap all its existing and deployed Euromissiles against the West's future and not-yet-deployed missiles.

At the same time, however, the peace movement has also suspected any alternative American proposal (of some reductions in Soviet Euromissiles for reduced NATO deployments) as simply a trick to secure some new American deployments. (This view was articulated most prominently in early February in an article in the newspaper Vorwarts by the Social Democrats' chief spokesman on disarmament, Egon Bahr.)

If any shift in the American negotiating position had come on Washington's own initiative, the peace movement's very negative view of the shift would probably have prevailed in the broad public - for lack of any generally publicized counterview.

As things stand now, however, the well-publicized European push for more American flexibility in recent weeks - and the American resistance to this pressure - has created a rather different context. The European public may be confused by the arcane subject of arms control. But at least it has an alternative to the peace movement's image of Reagan as the ogre in arms control.

That alternative - and that hope for many Europeans - is that Washington may now be striving for Euromissile arms control.

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