A Change of Habit


A 40-year habit of thinking first of arms and only later of arms control could cause big trouble for the United States and its Western allies some day. The raucous controversy in Western Europe over a handful of short-range nuclear missiles is a preview of how big.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl of West Germany is in disfavor with large numbers of his voters, many of whom are tired of the Cold War and believe that Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev is a kinder, gentler Communist. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization wants to replace 88 short-range launchers that can hurl nuclear missiles only 300 miles with launchers with a range four times that. Kohl, who may lose his next election no matter what happens, thinks he would lose for certain if he were seen to be encouraging deployment of more nuclear missiles in West Germany. He wants to postpone a decision on modernized Lance missiles at least until after his country’s 1990 national election or, better yet, until 1992.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, with support from President Bush and his Administration, insists that Kohl support formal NATO doctrine, which calls for modernization. Kohl refuses. Both sides then began lobbying other NATO members to choose sides. Only after it was clear that they were creating the most serious split in the history of NATO did the allies begin trying to put together a compromise this week.


The NATO explanation of the need for newer short-range missiles was that they keep Soviet troops at bay along the East-West border in Europe and therefore are the first line of protection for, among others, 250,000 American troops. In that view, they have grown in importance since the United States and the Soviet Union began dismantling all medium-range missiles in and around Europe under the INF treaty signed by former President Reagan and Gorbachev.

Another, equally respectable theory is that the missiles are bad medicine because commanders would want to fire them almost immediately in the event of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe and firing them would start an escalating exchange of longer- and longer-range missiles.

If arms control is brought into the picture, however, the whole argument sounds simple-minded. A large enough reduction in Soviet tanks, paratroopers and other forces posted along the East-West border would protect NATO forces from the threat of being overrun at least as well as a new line of nuclear missiles.

Instead of choosing up sides in a sterile debate, the alliance should be discussing how fast it can clear the decks for serious discussion of major cuts in combat forces on both sides and the elimination of short-range nuclear weapons. That process can start with Baker’s visit to Moscow in mid-month where a date will be set for resumption of negotiations on the START treaty that would cut long-range or strategic nuclear forces of both countries nearly in half.

Once the first phase of the START agreement is out of the way, NATO can turn its full attention to reductions in infantry and other conventional forces on both sides.

Thinking first of arms will not be an easy habit to break after nearly a half-century of cold war, as Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney demonstrated last week. Perhaps because he really believes it, Cheney told a CNN television audience that he thinks Gorbachev’s domestic reforms will fail and that the Soviet Union will be taken over again by hard-liners. Some analysts who know a lot more about the Soviet Union than Cheney are just as skeptical about Gorbachev’s chances of reviving the moribund Soviet economy.


It is also possible that Cheney was, at least in part, making a case for bigger and better defense forces against the day that Gorbachev fails and the Soviets turned surly again.

Because trust takes longer than a few years and more than a few promises to develop, arms control negotiations will remain difficult, and more arms may often look like just the ticket. Washington will have to get in the habit of thinking of both at the same time.