The Not-So-Iron Curtain After 40 Years

F. Stephen Larrabee, a former member of the National Security Council staff, 1978-81, is vice president and director of studies of the Institute for East-West Security Studies in New York.

This month marks the 40th anniversary of Winston Churchill's famous "Iron Curtain" speech in Fulton, Mo., in which he warned that an iron curtain had descended across Europe. The speech came against the background of Stalin's failure to carry out the agreements undertaken at Yalta and was a harbinger of the division of a continent, of the onset of the Cold War.

The face of Europe has changed considerably since Churchill's speech. While the Iron Curtain has not been raised, it has become more porous. As a result of the initiation of detente and particularly the Helsinki process, the hardships of division have been eased though not ended, and today there is increasing interaction between the two parts of Europe.

At the same time, Eastern Europe has become an area of increasing diversity and differentiation. Indeed, Eastern Europe is today undergoing a process of ferment likely to necessitate some restructuring of relationships with Moscow.

The primary problems are economic. With the exception of East Germany, all the countries in Eastern Europe have witnessed a decade of serious decline in growth rates and economic efficiency. This has forced many governments to introduce painful austerity programs, most dramatically in Poland and Romania. But even Hungary, having managed its economy relatively well, has faced economic difficulties.

As a result of the explosion of oil prices in the mid-1970s, the East European countries suffered a sharp deterioration in their trade balances with the Soviet Union--by nearly 20% since 1980. East European regimes have had to sell more of their products in exchange for Soviet goods. A simple example underscores the dilemma: In 1974, Hungary had to sell 800 Ikarus buses to the Soviet Union in order to purchase 1 million tons of Soviet oil; by 1984, it had to sell nearly 4,000 buses for the same amount of oil.

At the same time, constraints on Moscow's own resources have forced the Soviet Union to cut back energy supplies to Eastern Europe, especially oil. This has exacerbated East Europe's difficulties and made an expansion of economic relations with the West a more urgent priority.

Moscow-East European relations were further frayed during the late 1970s and early 1980s by the Soviet succession crisis. Moscow's preoccupation with leadership questions resulted in a perceptible vacillation in policy toward Eastern Europe. Several East European countries sought to exploit this drift to expand their room to maneuver and embark upon modest versions of a Westpolitik. The rapprochement between East Berlin and Bonn in 1983-84 was perhaps the most dramatic example, but Hungary in a more subtle way pursued a similar policy.

This lack of Soviet direction, however, appears to be ending with a new, younger, more energetic leader. Yet Gorbachev's reputation as a "reformer" does not necessarily mean things will be easier for Eastern Europe. On the contrary, the evidence to date suggests that reforms at home may be combined with a stronger emphasis on bloc unity and discipline.

A key article in Pravda last summer charged that the introduction of market principles was "fraught with dangers"--a rebuff that seemed directly aimed at the Hungarians. The same article criticized the thesis expounded by East Germany and Hungary that small and medium powers have an important role to play in fostering European detente. Then an article in January warned Hungary of the dangers in expanding ties to the West.

Moscow has also taken a tougher line in the economic area since Gorbachev's assumption of power. In June, at the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance meeting in Warsaw, the Soviet Union reportedly demanded higher quality manufactured goods from its allies. Moscow has also been pressing Eastern Europe to participate in many joint-energy ventures on Soviet soil, while cutting back its deliveries of raw materials to Eastern Europe.

These changes pose dilemmas for America as well, requiring the United States to think seriously about its own policy toward Eastern Europe. What is needed is less of a grand design and more of a clear sense of purpose.

First, Washington's interest in improving relations with Moscow should not lead to neglect of Eastern Europe. Trips such as the recent one by Secretary of State George P. Shultz--to Hungary, Romania and Yugoslavia--are a useful means of showing the flag and asserting that improved superpower relations do not mean a diminution of U.S. interest in good relations with Moscow's allies.

There is also a need to ease the political division of Europe. This does not mean that the United States should favor changes in the postwar borders. These borders have been accepted in international agreements--including the Helsinki Accord--and they provide an important element of stability in Europe. But it does mean that if detente is to work, it must include a free movement of peoples and ideas across national borders. This is one of the fundamental principles of the Helsinki agreement.

Second, the United States should recognize the increasing diversity in Eastern Europe. Rather than treating Eastern Europe as a monolithic appendage of the Soviet Union, as many neo-conservatives suggest, America should develop relations with the countries of Eastern Europe on an individual basis.

Third, the United States should continue strong support for the Helsinki process. While the implementation record of the East in some areas has been less than perfect, there has been progress beneficial to the West. In particular, the process has provided the West with a mutually accepted yardstick by which to measure improvements in key areas such as human rights. At the same time it has given small and medium-sized states, such as Hungary and Romania, greater room for maneuver and provided them a greater voice in the dialogue on European security, especially concerning military matters. Over the long run, this process can help erode the artificial East-West barriers and contribute to a greater sense of "European" identity and consciousness.

Within this framework, trade and cultural contacts with Eastern Europe should also be increased. The degree and depth of economic contacts needs to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. While there is an obvious need to avoid the transfer of strategic technology that could be used for military purposes, a general broadening of trade ties is in the interests of the United States and can contribute to freer interaction between East and West.

The United States should also intensify dialogues with Eastern Europe on security issues. These issues are of vital importance to the countries of Eastern Europe. Yet these countries have very little access to the technical knowledge on numbers and weapons capabilities essential to understand the issues and make informed judgments. The Reagan Administration initiation of periodic briefings on key security issues, such as the recent one after the Geneva summit, is a step in the right direction.

In the final analysis, however, the factor most affecting prospects for evolutionary change in Eastern Europe is likely to be a general improvement in East-West political relations. As the experience of the early 1970s underscores, changes in Eastern Europe are most likely to occur in an atmosphere of East-West detente. The rapprochement between Washington and Moscow after 1969 provided the all-important framework for closer dealings between Eastern and Western Europe in the early 1970s. Western policy makers, especially those in Washington, should remember recent history as they think about the prospects for change in Eastern Europe.

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