Modest, but important. That's how negotiators at the European Disarmament Conference are summing up the significance of the agreement they struck at Stockholm yesterday.
Modest, because the confidence-building measures they hammered out over the past 2 years do not even begin to address the major issues of arms control.
Important, because the Stockholm conference, the only surviving East-West forum, represents the first East-West security accord since the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty was signed in 1979.
Principal negotiators claim that with the Stockholm agreement, Europe now becomes a safer place by avoiding misunderstandings that could lead to superpower confrontation or even accidental war. This will be achieved through the observation, notification, and inspection of large-scale troop maneuvers in Europe.
The conference's chief accomplishment is the demand that each power bloc give a two-year advance notice on the movement of 75,000 or more troops. Major troop movements below that figure will require a year's warning. Any one of the 35 nations participating in the conference can insist, without right of refusal, on inspection for verification purposes.
Such confidence-building measures are not water-tight deterrents to war, analysts say. They won't prevent surprise military attacks or the use of military force for political intimidation. But because these measures are mutually binding, they say, any violation could prove politically costly.
The real value of the conference, argued some diplomats, is that building international confidence became an end in itself, improving the climate for future negotiations. What has set the tone for the Stockholm conference, says Sweden's ambassador Curt Lidgard, is ``the good chemistry in the relations between the American and Soviet delegates.''
Nobody is so rash as to suggest that success at this meeting will automatically lead to other breakthroughs at such forums as the follow-up talks of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) in Vienna this November. These review talks will take up the other two issues of the Helsinki Final Act of 1975: technical cooperation and human rights.
Yet it's argued that had the Stockholm meeting failed, it would virtually have jeopardized any other arms talks.
The optimism generated toward the close of the Stockholm conference was in stark contrast to its gloomy start back in January 1984. The Soviet Union, angry at the deployment of US cruise missiles in West Europe, had walked out of the Geneva arms talks. Stockholm became the only East-West forum when all others folded up.
Observers suggest that both power blocs wanted to proceed in Stockholm because the West was anxious to maintain some contact with the East, and the Soviets wanted to be part of the wider European debate to strengthen its influence there and cement stronger economic ties.
A Europe-wide security conference has also been a goal for the Soviets since 1950. The United States has long been suspicious that the Soviets wanted such a forum to split the US and Canada from its West European allies. Soviet sources, for their part, say that there would be no value in attempting such a strategy, when mutual benefits are available to everyone.
NATO sources take satisfaction from the fact that the conference worked basically from a specific NATO agenda, while the Soviet strategy of basing talks on broad political principles did not work -- except for the principle of non-use of force, which wound up in the final agreement.
One NATO ambassador saw special significance in the role of the East European states. The East-West forum, he maintains, is ``the only way East-bloc members feel comfortable and could express their own degree of particularness which would have been unthinkable when I negotiated the Helsinki Final Act of 1975.''
While East-bloc members never openly broke rank with the Soviet Union, this NATO ambassador thought that meetings such as this one might have significant implications for the junior members of the Warsaw Pact. ``Give them a taste, and they might get a liking for it.''
The agreement includes other elements with which the Soviets must contend. It now involves all Soviet territory in Europe -- a larger area than was covered in previous agreements. But there is a feeling that the Soviets welcome being part of a wider European debate, instead of being blocked off in Eastern Europe. Moscow may also benefit from the Stockholm agreement if some West European states -- such as Denmark, West Germany, and the Netherlands -- see less need for a visible defense role.
The writer was recently in Stockholm reporting on the security conference.