Bush Team Needs to Test the Soviets, Not the Alliance

<i> Robert O'Neill is a professor of history of war at Oxford University and the former director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London</i>

It is a commonplace observation that the foreign-policy team assembled by President Bush has formidable talent and experience.

The Western alliance that James A. Baker III, Lawrence Eagleburger, Brent Scowcroft, John Tower et al . will be dealing with is not in bad shape at the government-to-government level, with one notable exception. The normally harmonious relationship between Washington and Bonn is under severe strain as a result of West German insensitivity regarding the part played by German firms in helping Libya’s Col. Moammar Kadafi achieve a chemical-warfare capability. This unnecessary tension has come right at the time when Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, through the recent announcement of Soviet tactical nuclear withdrawals from Eastern Europe, has highlighted the Bonn government’s disunity on modernization of short-range nuclear systems.

Clearly this is not the time for the Bush Administration to get tough with the Germans on the nuclear issue. On chemical exports the situation is different. Few if any Germans can be proud of helping Kadafi, and there must be support in the West German government as well as in the public for tightening control over the chemical industry’s foreign activities. But on nuclear modernization the West German public is far from supportive, and the government is seriously split. The Bush Administration cannot want to open its record of alliance diplomacy by wounding its best friends on the Rhine. Rather, it must move quickly to overcome public skepticism about alliance policies by regaining some of the initiative from Gorbachev. It would also help to avoid the appearance of being mired in the past through adhering rigidly to plans made in 1987-88 and not giving consideration to the implications of the pending Sovietconventional-force cuts and withdrawals of tactical nuclear systems.

For the new Administration this means a short pause for a considered response to Gorbachev and then a thorough public evaluation of the NATO-Warsaw Pact relationship, preferably delivered by the President. Then should follow a further pause for debate on what has been said before a drawing of conclusions for action, both on modernization and on arms control. Bush could thus exert leadership quickly while avoiding the pitfall of overly hasty action. By midyear the West should be able to see clear lines of advance on both fronts.


Admittedly this is an ambitious timetable. But to wait much longer could give Gorbachev too much scope and result in a weaker political situation within the alliance, especially in its key members in Central Europe. The West will need to be seen as testing the Soviets--not standing flabbily by, claiming that little really has changed. In the meantime, modernization of the Lance short-range system should continue in the United States, leaving the issue of timing of deployment in Europe and cost-sharing for a more propitious moment.

It is good to hear that the new Administration is conducting a wide-ranging review of relations with the Soviet Union. The process includes, one hopes, not only an evaluation of the changes on the Soviet side but also a frank assessment of the second Reagan Administration’s performance in its dealings with the Kremlin. While President Reagan did well in his own special way by responding positively to Gorbachev, the Soviets gained politically by their activism and readiness to discard counterproductive old policies. Now Reagan is gone, and we need to see a more dynamic Western leadership that can both take welcome initiatives in its negotiating strategies and rally public support by being seen to be superior to the competition, not just barely adequate.

To the Europeans the final years of the Reagan presidency were the more tolerable because they had low expectations after hearing what the President had to say during his first two years in office.The allies are not quite sure what to think about Bush, but they do not think it fair to identify him with the Reagan policies that he so unswervingly supported--particularly in 1981-83. This means that their expectations are high and that they want to see some political action to give the West at least equal prominence in leading the world to a more secure future. If they do not, the alliance will suffer through loss of faith and cohesion.

Bearing in mind the possibility that Gorbachev could fail to reform the Soviet Union and that his new thinking in foreign policy could be displaced by something much more primitive and menacing, the alliance needs to be kept in good condition in times of improving relations with the Soviets just as much as in times of crisis. Yet the more dynamic nature of East-West relations makes it more difficult to do so. It’s just as well that there are some talented people around the President to advise him. He, and we collectively throughout the alliance, are going to need them as Gorbachev turns up the heat. Let us hope that they can meet the challenges of the 1990s as well as they met those of the slower and more predictable 1970s.