NOWADAYS, 3 out of 4 West Germans routinely declare themselves opposed to modernization of NATO's short-range nuclear weapons. Yet similar numbers - ranging from 75 to 80 percent - remain loyal to NATO and believe that American forces in Europe safeguard the peace. Clearly NATO itself is not in jeopardy. Rather, the current row over short-range missiles underscores that there are, within NATO, two sharply different views of what James Baker calls ``really important: the security of the West.''
The European notion of security has always been pragmatic, a response to circumstances. It is as much so today as at the time of the Marshall Plan or the Berlin airlift. Through centuries of military threats, what has mattered in Europe has been territorial integrity: to avoid the demoralization of, say, a Czechoslovakia in 1938.
Thus to an enfeebled Europe, the advent of long-range missiles after World War II promised an end to land wars of attrition, with their wearing military tactics of surprise and strength. Instead, there emerged a new military strategy, blackmail: ``Invade my territory and I'll pop one on Kiev!'' And in case an American president might flinch from that ultimate duty, then NATO troops and short-range missiles promised at least as much old-style military protection as the Maginot line. Europe simply took the risk that Germany might become another Flanders field.
Then came the ``new'' Europe - and both the threat and the risks changed. The success of the European Community brought prosperity, a market larger, wealthier, and more discriminating than North America itself, a European passport, and soon a single currency - a prospect Margaret Thatcher seeks to delay but cannot ultimately avert. Meanwhile, to the east, the Soviet Union looks less and less capable of sustaining a long land war; Baltic republics send nationalist representatives to the Soviet ``parliament''; Yugoslavia has already expressed its intent to seek associate membership in the European Community; Hungary is likely to follow suit after its elections next year, with Poland not far behind.
Mikhail Gorbachev talks of ``our common European home,'' and Helmut Kohl tells Mrs. Thatcher that he had taken an oath to serve the German people on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Each of them is attesting to a reality more enduring than postwar defense policy. They remember (for men around 60 can remember) that World War II was fought to rid the world of Nazism, not to divide Europe from north to south. They know that Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and, yes, Russia were European before they were Marxist.
Even before Mr. Kohl dropped his bombshell a month ago, 1,000 tanks of the Soviets' Vislensky Regiment had left East Germany ahead of schedule. As Thatcher was packing her bags for Deidesheim, East Germany was decommissioning the first 30 of 600 tanks it proposes to cut over the coming year. Hungary, having already waved the first Soviet T-64 tanks back to the Ukraine, began systematically cutting down the miles of barbed wire that marked its border with Austria. Finally, in Moscow, Mr. Gorbachev gave Mr. Baker specific numbers for future military strength in Europe - the same for both sides!
The Europeans are not gullible. They know that there is a difference between beginnings and endings. They know that to give up 500 short-range nuclear weapons means little when you outnumber NATO by 16 to 1. They know that the Soviet Union could still be an overpowering enemy. But, Thatcher always excepted, they simply do not believe that is a threat. So it seems wiser to have American long-range missiles as a last-ditch deterrent in the cause of European security, rather than European lives as a first-line deterrent in the cause of United States security.
Against this pragmatic approach, the American notion of security stands in stark contrast, for it is informed by an idea. After World War II, Winston Churchill, in his ``Iron Curtain'' phrase, lent the power of rhetoric to the idea of a boundary not only closed but bristling with menace; and George Kennan, as a Russian historian, lent the authority of his profession to the idea of a Soviet Union not only paranoid about its borders, but as voracious as the old colonial powers of Europe. That idea of menace and appetite made a policy of containment appropriate - a kind of preventive detention for the Soviets. But it is difficult to put ideas like that - ideologies, indeed - to a practical test; one never knows how useful they are. And that may be why the US is having such a hard time accepting that Gorbachev means what his actions, month after month, consistently suggest that he means.
The immediate controversy in NATO is papered over, but these disturbingly different assessments of the Soviet threat will remain. Forty-five years after D-Day, Europe's interests are changed. Much of Gorbachev's talk may indeed be political posturing; but in contrast, to European ears, the US sounds like a tired general, fighting ill-remembered battles with strategies long out of style. President Bush's Texas speech was a novel statement for an American leader; and in Brussels he even took a leaf from Gorbachev's book. But he will have to come up with more than a ``Mr. Gorbachev, don't stop now,'' more even than conventional force reductions, if he is to persuade the Europeans to maintain short-range weapons whose need they question and whose use they fear.