NATO's next step: reassure wary public; Missiles are being deployed but the arms debate goes on

"What we shouldn't do now [that missile deployents are proceeding], is sit back and feel we have done the job, and the problems are solved," says Volker Ruhe, deputy conservative floor leader in the Bundestag and party spokesman on security affairs.

"It will never be the same again; [we will never again have the situation in which nuclear] debate is just held by 12 experts worldwide."

"Before, we were still talking in a world of nuclear intellectuals," agrees European Parliament President Pieter Dankert. "That is something that has fundamentally changed."

As posed by Mr. Dankert, the key question for all NATO governments therefore is: "Will defense establishments be able to win back public opinion?"

The answer of European governments is "yes if." And the "if" has as much to do with reducing overall East-West tensions as with reducing nuclear dependence.

This conditional answer will please neither the European peace movements nor the Reagan administration. It is based on the old security consensus that the nuclear pacifist movements have put under siege -- and on the old assumption of the necessity of balancing East-West cooperation and confrontation that Ronald Reagan campaigned so vigorously against in 1980.

In official Europe, however, it is a matter of nonpartisan agreement among the conservative governments of West Germany, the Netherlands, and Britain and the Socialist coalition governments of France and Italy.

Washington's analysis of the post-deployment scene seems to be that the battle has been won now that Euromissile stationing has actually begun and the antinuclear movements proved unable to block it. NATO has demonstrated its resolution and its ability to act. The Western European nations have demonstrated that they will not surrender to mob rule and let themselves become ungovernable.

In this view, the West needs only to stand firm until the Soviet Union gives in and returns to the arms control negotiating table. The conservative British and West German governments, with decisive electoral mandates for most of the five-year deployment schedule, need only stand firm while the peace movements subside in frustration.

To some extent the Bonn and London governments agree with this analysis. Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his team have long contended that once the stationing began and the world did not immediately plunge into war -- and East-West German relations continued unharmed -- the anxiety that has stimulated so much antinuclear emotion would diminish.

As Christian Democratic spokesman Ruhe puts it, "Many young people were made afraid to an extent that they did not believe there would be a Nov. 23 [the day after the Bundestag voted to approve deployment]. They found out there was a Nov. 23. With the angst going down" there is "a chance" of reassuring public opinion.

There is circumstantial confirmation that the level of general fear has already dropped sharply in West Germany. The traditional year-end question of the Allensbach pollers -- "Do you view the New Year with hopes or fears?" -- found the optimists jumping from last year's 34 percent to 45 percent, the pessimists falling from 32 percent to 22 percent. This follows three Decembers in which the "hopes" and "fears" were roughly equal.

Despite such harbingers of domestic quiet, however, Western European establishments in general are very concerned about the 1980s erosion of the defense consensus of the previous three decades.

The antinuclear movements may be minorities, they say, but they cannot be ignored or overridden by majorities. They are composed of the well-educated young middle class. They form the next generation of opinionmakers. They could make a hollow victory of today's deployments if they produce an antidefense -- and anti-US -- backlash tomorrow. And if they can mobilize one-sixtieth of the population in the largest demonstration in West German history, they surely represent the real concerns of a broad spectrum.

In this view the core of antinuclear activists can probably never be convinced of the necessity of nuclear deterrence. But most of the million who took to the streets Oct. 22 can and must -- in Oxford Prof. Michael Howard's phrase -- be reassured. They must be convinced Western leaders are prudent rather than trigger-happy, conciliatory rather than confrontational, loathe rather than eager to brandish nuclear weapons of annihilation.

Especially in Germany, which would be the battlefield if diplomacy failed and war broke out -- only citizens who do trust the prudence and reasonableness of their political leaders will support the commitment to nuclear deterrence. Only such persuaded citizens can enable governments to master the "dilemmas" of deterrence, alliance, and detente identified by Dr. Gert Krell as the fundamental causes of the rise of the peace movement. Only such citizens can restore a defense consensus and -- government officials hope -- bring Social Democrats back into it.

The problem in all this for the Western alliance is that the cycles of opinion on the two sides of the Atlantic seem to be pulling in opposite directions. The American public -- and certainly the Reagan administration -- has been seeing the present phase as a time of needed toughness with the Russians. Yet this toughness does not reassure the Europeans -- it alarms them.

In the latest Atlantic Institute poll, more Britons and Italians blamed world tension on an American "confrontation course" than on Soviet expansionism (27 vs. 17 percent in Britain, 22 vs. 17 percent in Italy), while West Germans blamed both superpowers almost equally (25 percent the USSR, 23 percent the US).

What this means is that the European

governments deem US restraint in word and deed the key to restoring their domestic security consensus as Euromissile deployments proceed. Washington, however, regards the constant European badgering for restraint as faintheartedness.

European governments face suspicion not only from Washington, but also from domestic antinuclear protesters. One peace movement leader after another dismisses US compromise offers in arms control over the past two years -- offers usually made at the prodding of European governments -- as cosmetic. One leader after another discounts NATO's announced removal of 1,400 nuclear warheads from Europe as a public relations stunt -- and Bonn's praise of detente as an anodyne to lull the public.

But the European establishments persist in varying degree in trying to reassure their general publics and to steer the peace activists away from Messianic ideals into pragmatic policies.

"The only chance" to restore the defense consensus, says West German MP Ruhe, "is to have improvement in [East-West] political relations. That is the key."

"In the immediate term," British Social Democratic MP David Owen counsels, the West should press for arms control in the "flight negotiating window" in the first half of next year. It should also put "a very great deal of emphasis on Stockholm" (the European confidence-building conference in January), avoiding "polemics and rhetorical addresses which only satisfy the speech writers."

"I still believe that it's in foreign policy, rather than weapons themselves" that you have to reassure people, contends Lawrence Freedman, King's College professor of war studies. "The question is, can the Americans give the Russians any decent signals of something worth talking to the Americans about? The movement on battlefield nuclear weapons [the removal of the 1,400 nuclear warheads from Europe] is a sensible development."

He says that what is needed further is "just to calm the tone and make a real effort to establish a communication with the Russians [through something other than just] arms control. This is the real opportunity now -- to reorganize East-West relations on a more sensible basis, not setting arms to the fore of it. . . . The Russians have got to work out where they are going in the long term to make a policy review now. And we should be taking part in that [by making clear] where we are going and what the options are."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.