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Standing Down in Europe

Historic change is sweeping away what a full generation had come to regard as the proper order of things in Europe. If Washington intends to stay even--let alone stay ahead of the change--it will have to be more nimble than it was during the most recent flick of the broom.

That came this week in Vienna where the Soviet Union proposed that East and West cut their artillery pieces, tanks and armored infantry carriers to 10% below the existing force of the weaker of the two. Because the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has fewer of the forces in question than the Warsaw Pact, some reductions in East European forces would have to be 10 times as deep as those for NATO to get to the goal. Just months ago, analysts were calculating the odds that Moscow would take cuts half that deep at about zero. The proposal included a statement that virtually any intrusions in the name of verifying Soviet compliance with arms reductions would be acceptable.

The offer was made by Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze, who said it was the result of the “new thinking” of a changing Soviet Union. It resulted importantly from one thought-- that years of spending on nuclear weapons and other military force had not earned the respect of the world. A second important thought was that it had not earned security, either, because it would have to spend money it needed to survive domestically to build larger forces to be sure of prevailing anywhere in the globe where it had potential adversaries.

U. S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III said on his way back to Washington that he was encouraged by the Soviet offer, even if it left many disagreements over troop strength still to be resolved by months of negotiation. But the tone of his other remarks and of his prepared speech were much more cautious. He counseled skepticism and urged Europe not to be taken in by Soviet proposals.

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Perhaps Europe should temper its warm reception of many of Moscow’s proposals for arms reductions with caution, at least until some of the proposals move beyond talk to turning tanks into scrap. But even as suspicious an observer of the Soviet Union as military analyst Edward N. Luttwak wrote in the Washington Post last month that the United States could save money on military “readiness” because, at least for now, there was nothing to be ready for.

Another certain sign of change is the recent grumbling among West Germans that military maneuvers send too many jet-fighter planes over their homes at treetop level and too many tanks into their fields. They had borne years of maneuvers with stoic silence during most of the Cold War.

It has seemed clear for some time that the Soviet Union is trying to disengage and reduce world tensions to the point where it can try to put its economy and society back together. To be as compelling in its arguments as the Soviets, the United States must be more precise about what it is willing to do as its part in reducing tensions. People with jets in their treetops and tanks in their fields cannot be won over with arguments that seem to say to prepare for more of the same.

It is good that Baker was encouraged and that he and his Soviet counterpart seemed to hit it off during their first meeting. But unless Washington finds a better way to say, and show, that its commitment to reducing the chances of war in Europe is at least as strong as Moscow’s, it is bound to see Western Europe drift away from its lead.

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