In his State of the Union address, President Bush announced a plan to deepen proposed cuts in superpower forces in Europe, leaving each side with 195,000 instead of 275,000 troops. But even this adjustment cannot save a Conventional Forces in Europe agreement from the military irrelevance and political harm it is bound to do in the new context of European politics.
New political circumstances in Eastern Europe demand that the Atlantic Alliance urgently rethink the basic questions of conventional arms control: What's the threat? What impact would current proposals, if implemented, have on that threat?
If it doesn't wake up fast, NATO will sign an agreement on conventional forces that legitimates the continued Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe and keeps Soviet troop levels far higher than they might otherwise be. Both of these extraordinary concessions would retard the full emancipation of Eastern Europe from the Soviet yoke. In return, NATO gets nothing--at least nothing it won't get anyway.
NATO's main aim in the long-running conventional-force talks has been to stabilize conventional deterrence to reduce the threat of war. But the Warsaw Pact threat to NATO has ended without arms control. The military institutions of Eastern Europe, increasingly free of Soviet influence, will not fight beside Russian soldiers west of the inter-German border. More likely, they would fight against the Russians east of it. The Soviet Union cannot invade Western Europe if it must slug its way through Poland, Czechoslovakia and East Germany first.
Yet the momentum of the negotiating process is obscuring this conclusion. Most Western experts see current negotiations as riding the crest of a major breakthrough. The Bush proposal only serves to fuel the euphoria that an agreement will be reached.
These folks need to brush the cobwebs out of their brains and look around. Early this month, as NATO officials busied themselves with arcane conventional-force verification details, the military architecture of the Warsaw Pact was crumbling before our eyes. On Jan. 15, unprecedented negotiations began between Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union; the agenda was Prague's demand that Moscow remove all 75,000 Soviet troops from Czechoslovakia this year. Three days later, both the Hungarian and Polish governments made similar formal demands. Do NATO officials grasp what recent changes in Eastern Europe really mean? Pursuing verification minutiae only makes sense if the agreement makes sense. But it clearly doesn't.
Soviet force levels in Eastern Europe are entering free fall and the East European governments responsible for it do not need an East-West deal to help them along. Even superpower levels of 195,000 are not a ceiling, but a floor, for the Soviets; no wonder they reacted positively to the President's announcement.
Not only does it defy reason for NATO to legitimate a continued Soviet presence in Eastern Europe, but abetting artificially high Soviet troop levels could be dangerous. If Moscow's leadership should change, Soviet attitudes toward Eastern Europe could regress to old ways. Soviet troops in Eastern Europe would undoubtedly be used in any attempt to reestablish Moscow's domination. NATO would be unwittingly complicit.
We don't need a Conventional Forces in Europe agreement, no matter what troop levels are specified. The new U.S. proposal still lets Moscow keep too many troops. A deal for still-deeper cuts--say down to 100,000 each--gives Moscow something for nothing: reductions in U.S. forces in Europe well below their optimum level for uncertain times ahead.
We ought to just sit back and watch the Soviet imperial recession play itself out. If we do, we'll reap a much larger "peace dividend" later on in a time and manner of our choosing.
We need not abandon negotiations forever. After the dust has settled on a new European security environment, Washington should ponder fresh approaches to conventional arms control that might do some good. When it does, its aim may be to calm fears about future German power as well as to deter Soviet aggression.
Positive changes have rushed upon Eastern Europe and more, equally dramatic and benign, may follow unless the West makes foolish mistakes. The bureaucratic routines and mental habits of a dying age must not become a drag on the emergence of a better tomorrow. That, not a blitzkreig from the East, is today's greatest danger.