WE have come to take peace so much for granted that we find it hard to imagine the world of just a quarter century ago, reluctantly preparing for a war it thought it could not prevent and knew it could not survive. Yet those of us who, as young reporters, rode the President's campaign special through Ohio in the fall of 1984 can recall the sense of the end of an era. . . . For over a generation the country had been devoting nearly a tenth of its national product to armaments. . . . The long-neglected rail system had sunk to a third-world level. Pollution-spewing automobiles, the only practical means of transport, created monumental traffic jams at each of the President's campaign stops. The ramshackle stations and the decaying inner cities around them testified that the country could not afford another huge arms budget. . . . A wholly new approach was needed. Riding the train through Ohio that fall, though, we rode as in a wolf-fog: We and the whole world with us could think only of pushing harder or less hard.
We might well have ridden on to disaster. It seems doubtful that the President's historic ``New Peace'' proposal would have had any hope of success -- or would have been made at all -- had it not been for the Great Depression of 1986 and the series of disastrous harvests in the Soviet Union. Not that the depression came as a surprise. For years, the United States had financed heavy deficit spending by borrowing overseas. A combination of vast military expenditures and individual entitlement payments far exceeded available revenues. Artificially high interest rates kept overseas capital flowing in, but at the same time increasingly eroded America's ability to export and to service its debt. When the spectacular failure of the ---------- Bank in the fall of 1985 reversed the flow of capital, the depression became inevitable, shattering the illusion of guns-and-butter-on-credit. . . .
The agricultural disaster in the Soviet Union should have been no more of a surprise. The rigidly centralized agricultural system had been ailing for years. In 1984 the Soviet grain harvest fell below 175 million metric tons, far short of the minimum of 225 million tons needed. Some leading experts, Mikhail Gorbachev among them, saw the handwriting on the wall already in the early '80s and diagnosed the cause. The need to maintain a strict control over a disaffected empire, however, precluded the obvious solution, a loosening of the controls that were strangling Soviet agriculture. . . .
The President proposed to let peace grow by encouraging the growth of neutral buffer zones between the great powers instead of seeking to impose it on a divided world. . . .
The division of Europe was hopelessly artificial and fundamentally nonviable. No amount of rhetoric about ``Eastern'' Europe could transform Berlin or Prague into ``Eastern'' cities -- or half of Germany into the 51st American state. The armies poised along the Elbe were not stationed along the boundaries of an ``Eastern'' Europe or of ``the West.'' They were stationed in the heart of Europe, far beyond the borders of their respective homelands. . . . Only a massive Soviet armed presence -- as the Polish events of 1980 had clearly shown -- could preserve the illusion that Poland, Czechoslovakia, half of Germany are not an integral part of Europe but of a mythical entity labeled ``the Eastern bloc.'' That armed presence at the heart of Europe, though, inevitably evoked fear and justified an American counterpresence. That in turn convinced the Soviets of a need to reinforce their own expeditionary forces in Europe. . . .
The President's proposal was, in effect, a call for Soviet-American cooperation in letting Europe be Europe, a neutral buffer zone between the two great powers rather than the theater of their confrontation, and to extend the pattern of buffer zones throughout the world.
Today, success of the buffer zone approach has become so obvious it is difficult for us to realize how utterly unacceptable it appeared a quarter of a century ago. When the President made his ``Initiative for a New Peace'' speech at the emergency meeting of economic ministers in Vienna, the initial response was vituperously negative. The President's own supporters attacked him for ``selling out to the Russians'' and, in a Senate resolution, called for accelerated rearmament. Pravda, in a bitter editorial duly echoed by newspapers throughout the Soviet bloc, condemned the initiative as a thinly disguised attempt at reviving the cold war call for ``rolling back the Iron Curtain.''. . Today, it seems obvious. Europe artificially divided made a posture of perennial confrontation inescapable, but Europe unified under a Soviet aegis was as unacceptable to the Americans and to Europeans themselves as a Europe united under an American aegis to the Soviets. An autonomous European Europe, a zone of peace rather than a theater of confrontation, offered the only way out of the dilemma that had kept the world at the brink of war for decades. . . .
If the impossible yet came to pass, it was, in part, because, between depression and famine, neither of the two great powers had the strength to continue the confrontation. In part, though, it was also because, unnoted, seeds of the new peace were already present in the divided world. There was Finland, neutral through the years of confrontation, providing the Soviets with by far their most secure border. Then there was Austria, the sole remnant of Nikita Khrushchev's fleeting flirtation with the idea of buffer zones. In its neutrality, Austria, too, provided the Soviets with a carefree border and a valuable bridge to the West. By the 1980s, trade between Austria and neighboring Soviet-occupied Hungary had exceeded the levels of old Austro-Hungarian times. Though separated by an Iron Curtain, the two countries remained linked by centuries of common history. . . .
There was another factor as well. Hungary did not appear nearly as crucial to Soviet European strategy as Poland or Germany. Originally, the purpose of stationing an expeditionary force in Hungary had been to assure the Soviets of effective control of the Balkans. Forty years after the war, though, the Balkans had become a strategic backwater where neutrality offered as good or better hope of stability than a costly occupation.
Perhaps that is why the Soviets in 1988 felt safe enough to make their offer of Hungarian neutralization in confederation with the already neutral Austria. . . . Moscow faced the prospect of confronting, on the other side of the Elbe, no longer a group of disparate states but one solidly integrated West Europe. . . .
Washington's decision to reciprocate with a drastic reduction of American forces in Italy played an important role. Still, the chief reason was deeper: The restored Austro-Hungarian confederation, whose disintegration destabilized central Europe in 1918, represented a powerful stabilizing influence.
In all likelihood it was the success and stability of the new Danube Federation and the important role it acquired as the Soviet Union's major trading partner that influenced Moscow's surprising decision to allow Czechoslovakia to join it at the time of the Czechoslovak upheaval in 1992. At the time, the announcement came as a bombshell, arousing a wave of suspicion. Still, there had been omens. Romania's withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact in 1990, matched by the Norwegian withdrawal from NATO, had passed uneventfully, with no major effect either on Romania's pro-Soviet or Norwegian pro-Western orientation. . . .
The world, too, was changing, even though the headlines continued to stress the opposite. The surprisingly successful neutralization of Afghanistan had set a precedent of Soviet-American cooperation, paving the way for disengagement in Central America and for cooperation in bringing stability to the Near East. Unable to play off the powers against each other, third-world countries lost much of their destabilizing power.
In that context, even the thorniest problem, that of the division of Germany, began to appear soluble. Two factors were at work. One was the growing sense of the Soviet Union and the United States as partners in preserving global peace, growing out of the tacit disengagement in Central America as much as out of the active cooperation in bringing peace to Afghanistan and the Near East. The other was that, . . . Over the years, the two German states had built up an effective partnership de facto, though never admitting it de jure. . . .