Missiles -- and Soviet mischiefmaking

THE new Soviet leadership is going out of its way to stress that there can be no second summit without prior progress on arms control. With strategic arms reductions talks (START) deadlocked over competing proposals and the even more important Soviet insistence that the United States must forswear strategic defense, the focus for arms control (and for those desiring a second summit) has shifted to the realm of intermediate-range nuclear forces, or INF. How the US reacts could have far-reaching consequences for our relations with the Soviets and Central Europe. Early this year Mikhail Gorbachev proposed that all nuclear weapons be eliminated by the end of the century; in the first phase of this process, he suggested that all US and Soviet intermediate range missiles be removed from Europe. In addition, this first phase of the Soviet offer would require that the British and French freeze their nuclear arsenals and that the United States pledge not to transfer missiles to them or any other country. The Gorbachev proposal made no mention of the approximately 150 Soviet SS-20 missiles in Asia.

The initial US inclination was to tell Mr. Gorbachev that while the US shared his desire to rid Europe of intermediate-range nuclear missiles, the Soviets must agree, too, to reduce their missiles in Asia by half. In addition, the US rejected the notion of freezing allied arsenals. Before presenting this response to the Soviets, the Reagan administration first tried it out on key allies; former INF negotiator Paul Nitze was sent to Europe and former START-delegation head Edward Rowney traveled to Asia. Neither encountered much enthusiasm. The Europeans made it clear they preferred keeping some American missiles in Europe, while the Japanese and other Asian allies could not understand why they were being left to face a threat the Europeans were not. It was time to go back to the drawing board.

President Reagan last month. The American proposal would, through phased reductions, remove medium-range missiles from both Europe and Asia by 1990; as such, the ``new'' US plan is nothing so much as a dusted-off version of the 1981 ``zero'' option, crafted at the time to convince Europeans that the US sincerely sought arms control so as to make unnecessary the controversial planned deployment of Pershing II and cruise missiles. Critics argued at the time the US ``zero'' option was sure to be rejected by the Soviets, who could never be tempted by an offer in which they would give up an operational system in exchange for our promise not to deploy one of our own. Thus, five years ago the US proposal displeased many Europeans who feared it could never be negotiated; now it displeases many of these same Europeans for fear it might.

The allies are unhappy for good reason. Their reaction goes beyond their normal tendency to resist any change to the status quo. Leaders of the five countries in which the new US missiles are based -- including Britain's Margaret Thatcher and Germany's Helmut Kohl -- expended considerable political capital in recent years to persuade their reluctant publics to admit a new generation of US missiles; to get them out so soon raises questions as to whether it was all worth it.

There is another, more important factor at work here as well. Intermediate-range missiles perform the unique purpose of providing a tangible and visible reminder of American readiness to come to Europe's defense. Europeans, led by the then chancellor of Germany, Helmut Schmidt, asked for such a reminder in the late 1970s as the Soviets began their deployment of SS-20 missiles. Europeans were not simply reacting to the SS-20s, but to the fact that the US no longer enjoyed strategic superiority. Warsaw Pact advantages in nonnuclear conventional forces in Europe could no longer be compensated for by US advantages outside. Today, some years after, the conventional force imbalance has not gone away, and the overall strategic balance is, if anything, worse. To remove all intermediate missiles from Europe would simply re-create the uncertainty in Europe as to the reliability of the American nuclear guarantee, an uncertainty which over time could threaten the viability of the Atlantic alliance.

Thus far, the Soviet leader is showing little interest in the US proposal; no doubt prodded by his Soviet generals, he has little interest in dismantling several hundred missiles. Mr. Gorbachev's objectives are largely tactical: to divide the US from its key allies and to steal a public relations march on President Reagan. We should not play his game. Instead, the West would do better to insist on the primacy of the START negotiations, and negotiate the levels of other offensive forces only, once we have established the balance of strategic offensive and defensive systems. Until then we should resist singling out intermediate-range nuclear systems for special treatment. Deterrence if divided becomes weaker. So too will alliances. If a tough US stance on INF elicits a refusal from Mr. Gorbachev to attend a second summit, so be it. Better no arms control agreement than a bad one, and better no summit than one focused on arms control schemes which serve Soviet political aims and not our own.

Richard N. Haass, formerly an official in the Defense and State Departments, lectures on public policy at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

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