Why Are We So Defensive On Defenses For Europe?

<i> John Tirman is executive director of the Winston Foundation in Boston, and is editor of the Annual Review of Peace Activism. </i>

In Vienna, an extraordinary drama is unfolding in which the United States and its partners in the North Atlantic Alliance once again find themselves in a script authored by Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

Negotiations to cut conventional forces in Europe have begun, and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze wasted no time in presenting a sweeping plan for reductions. The proposal envisages precisely the goals that the West has long sought: equality of military forces, an end to the Warsaw Pact threat to Western Europe and new guarantees of stability. The plan also recognizes that the Soviet Union must make larger cuts to remedy asymmetries--such as the Warsaw Pact’s 2-to-1 advantage in tanks--in forces.

But the reaction from NATO was derogatory. British Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe, the spokesman for the alliance, said that NATO would not be drawn into a “competitive striptease” with the Warsaw Pact. U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III warned the allies to treat the proposals with skepticism.

This is not the first time that the United States has begrudged Gorbachev’s peace initiatives. The Reagan Administration treated each Soviet concession in the negotiations toward a treaty on intermediate-range nuclear forces as if it were a deadly trap. The treaty, however, is now operating smoothly and the danger of a nuclear confrontation in Europe is greatly diminished. Similarly, Gorbachev’s Dec. 7 speech before the U.N. General Assembly, in which he vowed to unilaterally cut 10,000 tanks and 500,000 troops, was met in Washington by a befuddled silence. And Moscow’s suggestion to forgo a new nuclear arms race in Europe also has been rebuffed: New sea-based weapons are being introduced by NATO, and Baker has scolded the West Germans for balking at the alliance’s demand that short-range nuclear weapons (all of them based in West Germany) be modernized.


It would be unfortunate if such U.S. rigidity persisted at the conventional arms talks in Vienna. The Soviet Union is, in effect, offering to disengage from the 40-year standoff in Europe, the most heavily militarized region in the world. If the United States would instead welcome this astonishing opportunity, the East-West rivalry could be abated and a vast economic savings could accrue. About 60% of the U.S. military budget, or $180 billion a year, is dedicated to NATO.

American policy-makers, however, seem confused by the Gorbachev phenomenon and, as a result, are paralyzed. Unable to reconsider the Cold War framework that was used to understand past Soviet leaders, they cannot gainfully respond.

Perhaps the Washington Establishment should take a cue from Gorbachev’s own evolution on these issues. The Soviet Union’s remarkable turnabout on defense policy, which looks like a ploy to some Americans, is in fact a form of theft. Gorbachev has appropriated the ideas of West European peace researchers who, over the last dozen years, have developed proposals for “non-offensive defense” for Europe. The concept is simple: If the principal dangers in the East-West confrontation are surprise attack, provocative weaponry and offensive threats such as deep-strike aircraft, then both sides should adopt defensive alignments in which the capability for offense is greatly constrained.

This emphasis on non-provocative defense was at the heart of Gorbachev’s U.N. speech and is embodied in the plan outlined Monday in Vienna. It calls for reductions of conventional forces in two stages over six years; in a third stage, the remaining forces (about half present levels) would be “given a strictly defensive character.” In short, this means deploying weapons that can defend but not attack--for example, anti-tank devices instead of tanks.


These ideas, developed by military analysts such as Anders Boserup in Denmark, Robert Neild in Britain and Lutz Unterseher in West Germany, have gradually filtered into European capitals. Today, “non-offensive defense” is the policy of the major opposition parties in Bonn and London and is of growing significance elsewhere. The influence of these Western concepts on the Kremlin can be traced as well. Joint projects between Soviet foreign policy analysts and Boserup, Unterseher and others have introduced these new defensive opportunities to Gorbachev.

But this new realism about Europe has not reached Washington. For reasons difficult to fathom, the Bush Administration does not appear ready to explore--much less adopt--a new form of common security. Even the economic incentives, which certainly are prominent in Gorbachev’s thinking, do not move our President to reconsider Soviet intentions and interests.

Meanwhile in Vienna, the players have assembled and the curtain has risen. Exceptional opportunities to end the Cold War are evident in the new thinking that is now center stage in Europe. Why can’t America join in?