• U.S.

Now, Super-Zero?

14 minute read
George J. Church

“What are you afraid of?” asked Mikhail Gorbachev. Doubtless the Soviet leader knew perfectly well why his visitor, Secretary of State George Shultz, could not immediately reply to his newest arms-control bombshell: having unnerved NATO allies when Ronald Reagan traded blue-sky proposals with Gorbachev at the Reykjavik summit, the U.S. was determined this time to answer the Soviets only after fully consulting with the West Europeans. But Gorbachev and his subordinates could not resist taunting Shultz for seeming diffident about an offer that, on its face, not only met but topped American terms for a pact to take nuclear missiles out of Europe and open the way for another summit this fall in Washington. After Shultz’s three-day mission to Moscow had ended last week, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov stuck the needle in deeper. If U.S. negotiators want an agreement, said he, “they must be prepared to meet their own proposals.”

Actually, the needling might have been more accurately directed at America’s European allies. It is they, rather than the U.S., that are most uneasy at the turn of events. After years of publicly decrying the proliferation of nuclear weapons on their soil, some Europeans may be reminded of Oscar Wilde’s dictum: “When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.” To the West’s discomfort, Gorbachev is zestfully playing a role no previous Soviet leader has essayed: the man who keeps saying yes. The General Secretary first astonished NATO last month by accepting Reagan’s zero-option proposal to scrap all intermediate-range Soviet and American nuclear missiles in Europe, and then by agreeing, at least in principle, to on-site inspection to make sure the missiles are gone. When the Western nations pointed out that this would still leave the Soviets with a distinct advantage in shorter-range missiles, Gorbachev outmaneuvered them with yet another concession. Before Shultz’s trip to Moscow, Washington’s insistence on strict verification looked like a potential stumbling block to a treaty. Until Gorbachev, the Soviets had never been willing to seriously consider the idea of foreigners poking around their missile sites, and it had remained unclear how far the new leader would go. But Gorbachev not only indicated approval of American ideas, he tried last week to make them sound as if they were his own. According to the Soviet news agency TASS, he told Shultz, “We shall be demanding verification and inspection everywhere: on the sites of missiles’ dismantling, on the sites of their elimination, at ranges and military bases, including third countries, at depots and plants.”

Shultz went to Moscow last week to argue that an agreement on intermediate- range (600 miles to 3,400 miles) missiles must do something to redress the disparity in shorter-range launchers, those with a range of 300 miles to 600 miles. The U.S. proposal: freeze the number of Soviet missiles and let the U.S. install an equal amount in Europe.

Gorbachev replied by proposing what some Europeans called a “super-zero option.” For once, TASS carried the most complete account of his talks with Shultz. In effect, Gorbachev said, We want to take warheads out of Europe, not put more in. So let’s equalize once more at zero: we will get rid of all our European shorter-range missiles if the U.S. pledges not to bring any such weapons into the Continent. He implied this would be done within a year of Senate ratification of a treaty on INF (intermediate-range nuclear forces) weapons.

Clearly taken by surprise, Shultz replied that such sweeping proposals must be discussed with American allies in Western Europe, whose security is at stake. But the more he and President Reagan pondered Gorbachev’s offer, the more tempting it seemed. Meeting with the press back in the U.S. on Thursday night, after briefing the vacationing Reagan at the President’s California ranch, Shultz asserted, “If we are placed in a box, it’s a wonderful box to be in . . . We have been working from day one to bring about radical reductions in these weapons systems.” Earlier, Reagan summarized Shultz’s report this way: “All I heard today is in the direction I want to go in.”

But the governments of most of America’s European allies do not at all think Gorbachev’s direction is the way to go. They are terrified that Soviet cold-turkey proposals could, in the words of NATO’s Supreme Commander in Europe, Bernard Rogers, make the Continent “safe for conventional war.” Facing Soviet superiority in conventional arms, NATO has contemplated not just using nuclear weapons but using them first, to stop a Warsaw Pact invasion. If all the nukes were gone, the Soviets might be deterred from invading Europe only if they could be convinced that the U.S. would fire its intercontinental missiles in response, touching off a holocaust. And whether the Kremlin believes the U.S. would do so, many West Europeans do not.

The European governments will go along with elimination of intermediate- range missiles because they have little choice: they committed themselves to the zero option when Reagan proposed it in 1981 and nobody thought the U.S.S.R. would ever accept. But their fear is that scrapping both intermediate- and shorter-range missiles would be a step toward the total denuclearization of Europe.

Sure enough, Gorbachev raised the subject of denuclearization with Shultz. He proposed that after destroying intermediate- and shorter-range missiles, the superpowers negotiate about getting rid of short-range (under 300 miles) missiles and even battlefield nuclear weapons (for example, nuclear artillery shells). Shultz would not go that far. Asked in California if tactical nukes are on the negotiating table, the Secretary flatly answered no. He explained that “in order to have the ability to respond flexibly to any aggression from the Warsaw Pact forces, we have to have the different forces to be flexible with, and we will keep them.”

Foreign Ministers of the NATO countries meeting with Shultz in Brussels on Thursday seemed less than reassured. Leaving the session, Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Andreotti admitted “there is fear of global denuclearization without adequate countermeasures,” although his government made it plain that it supported the new approach. A French TV news analyst summed up a strong current of opinion in his country: “Zero option, yes. Double zero and triple zero, no.” British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, during her visit to Moscow three weeks ago, told Gorbachev that a “world without nuclear weapons would be less stable and more dangerous for all of us.” Canadian Foreign Minister Joe Clark said he had found “obvious differences” at the Brussels meeting, “not just between the U.S. and Europe but between Europe and Europe.”

Nonetheless, Shultz asserted in Brussels that “we have before us the prospect for a good INF agreement, and we have the basic elements in place.” At week’s end White House sources were speculating about a Gorbachev visit to the U.S. to attend a summit conference with Reagan in September or October. That would imply a pact ready for signature: Gorbachev would not come otherwise.

Bantering with reporters before his 4 1/2-hour meeting with Shultz in the Kremlin on Tuesday, Gorbachev remarked, “Generally, without reason I do not go anywhere, particularly to America. This cannot be just an outing.” Shultz at that point pulled an envelope out of his pocket and told Gorbachev, “You’re welcome to come. I have a letter from the President, and it says so.”

The Soviets were less coy when Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze went into private talks with Shultz. According to American sources, the Soviets brought up the subject of a summit four times. They did not, however, attempt to set a date, to the embarrassment of White House Chief of Staff Howard Baker, who declared early in the week that he “would not be surprised” if Shultz came home with a summit scheduled. Even so, Shultz and Shevardnadze both indicated that a summit, and by implication a missile agreement, is a strong prospect later this year.

Indeed, the more difficult negotiations may occur not between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. but between the U.S. and Western Europe — or perhaps among the Europeans themselves. Those who fear an American “decoupling” from the defense of Europe are in a box, and unlike Shultz they do not find it wonderful. The idea of a denuclearized continent is far from unpopular with a European public nervous about becoming the first targets in a nuclear war. With rare exceptions such as Thatcher, no leader dares argue openly that getting rid of U.S. nuclear missiles is a bad idea. Still less will anyone voice another reason for hanging on to American nuclear weapons: they give Europe a cheap means of avoiding the expenditures that would be necessary to build a conventional force capable of holding off the Warsaw Pact on the ground. For that matter, the U.S. has never been willing to spend the money required to support a nonnuclear defense of Europe.

Some U.S. experts, notably former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, also worry about a lessening of the American commitment to defend Europe. Says Kissinger: “The so-called zero option . . . has little utility for arms control; it does represent an important step in decoupling Europe from the U.S. politically.” To other Americans, this fear is exaggerated. They point out that plenty of American nuclear weapons, carried by bombers or launched by submarines, would be left for the defense of Europe. The independent British and French nuclear forces, which are not involved in the INF negotiations, would be left intact. Further, these experts argue, the presence of 325,000 American troops in Western Europe guarantees that the U.S. would fight a Soviet invasion, with nuclear warheads if necessary. Says former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger: “Denuclearization of Europe is a false issue.”

Governments in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands in particular could face a pacifist backlash if they blocked a Soviet-American agreement to get rid of shorter-range missiles. At present the Soviets have about 130 shorter-range weapons — some 50 in East Germany and Czechoslovakia, the rest in the western U.S.S.R. The U.S. has none at all; it controls the warheads for 72 shorter- range Pershing 1As in West Germany, but these are nonetheless considered German missiles, not subject to a U.S.-Soviet agreement. Thus if Gorbachev’s latest proposal is rejected, the numbers of U.S. and Soviet shorter-range nukes could be equalized only by installing new American missiles where there are none now. That would risk a rerun of the antimissile, and anti-U.S., demonstrations that exploded through Western Europe before American intermediate-range weapons were installed, beginning in late 1983.

The Europeans feel under pressure to make up their minds quickly on Gorbachev’s proposals. U.S.-Soviet INF negotiations resume in Geneva on Thursday, and the U.S. does not want to keep Moscow waiting long for an answer. A NATO policy-planning group will convene this week in Albuquerque to begin mapping a coordinated response. Policy planners hope to reach agreement on a European position by mid-May, mostly because they think the U.S. is in no mood to wait beyond then. Some fear that the Reagan Administration wants to hurry into an agreement that would restore much of the luster the President lost with Iranscam.

The most likely prospect is that the Europeans will try to get the U.S. to make a counteroffer to the Soviet proposals. Some idea of what that might be comes from West Germany. The government of Chancellor Helmut Kohl has some special anxieties. At present Soviet intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles can hit almost any country in Western Europe. If they are removed, the Soviets would be left with swarms of short-range missiles that for the most part are aimed at only one NATO country: West Germany. Thus the Germans fear that they will become more than ever the special, or even sole, Soviet target. West Germans suggest two ideas: 1) demand that the Soviets destroy ^ many of their under-300-mile-range missiles as well as longer-range types; 2) condition a missile deal on a Soviet commitment to reduce conventional forces in Europe. Says Volker Ruhe, a Bundestag expert on defense policy and adviser to Kohl: “Things are too much concentrated on solely nuclear issues.” Tying missile negotiations to conventional-arms cuts, however, risks drawing out the nuclear talks forever. U.S.-Soviet negotiations on conventional-force reductions in Europe have been droning on in Vienna for 13 years.

A key problem for American and European negotiators in framing a response to Gorbachev’s proposals is reading the Soviet leader’s motives. One group sees Gorbachev as pursuing the old game of detaching the U.S. from its European allies and trying to turn West European public opinion against its own leaders. The Soviets, says Ruhe, are offering to eliminate whole classes of nuclear weapons because “they have finally discovered where their real military advantages are — in the conventional field.”

Other experts believe that Gorbachev is eager for a deal primarily because it would strengthen his hand against opponents of his economic and cultural reforms within the U.S.S.R. Gorbachev, says Cesare Merlini, president of the Institute for International Affairs in Rome, is thinking mostly of winning the “power struggle within the Kremlin.”

A third school holds that Gorbachev simply means what he says: he wants an arms deal because it would make the world safer. Says one mid-level Soviet official: “He doesn’t play by the old rules. The whole strategy of arms negotiations is changing; bargaining chips don’t work anymore. Gorbachev really thinks in a new way, and that is not just a slogan.” Something like this view is echoed by a less biased observer: George Shultz. Talking to reporters in California about Gorbachev’s latest offer, the Secretary mused, “Why are the Soviets doing this? I don’t know. They say they want a less threatening and less nuclear world, and maybe you should take them at face value.”

Whatever his motives — and they are probably thoroughly mixed — Gorbachev obviously relishes taking the West by surprise. Last week the Soviets suggested that the U.S. and U.S.S.R. each hold a nuclear test on the other’s territory as a means of improving procedures to verify an eventual test ban. The U.S. agreed in principle. Gorbachev also broadened slightly the definition of the research into the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative that would be permitted under a more comprehensive arms agreement. At Reykjavik Gorbachev had insisted on laboratory research only; to Shultz in Moscow he defined “laboratory research” as including tests of SDI components that could be conducted on the ground. That did not necessarily bring an agreement any closer. The U.S. insists on conducting tests in space also, and indeed on the right eventually to deploy SDI. Gorbachev has demanded that stern limits on SDI accompany any Soviet-American agreement on deep cuts in long-range nuclear missiles, and on that his position is unchanged.

During his talks in Moscow, Shultz raised several other issues. In an interview on Soviet television, he repeatedly criticized the Kremlin for occupying Afghanistan. He pressed Gorbachev on human rights, particularly Jewish immigration. That irritated the Soviet leader, who approved a TASS commentary rebuking Shultz for attending a Passover Seder with a number of Soviet refuseniks. Gorbachev showed little flexibility on any of these matters.

But on INF and shorter-range missiles, Gorbachev has been changing bargaining offers with lightning speed. Some Americans wonder whether, by the time the U.S. and its European allies work out an answer to the Kremlin’s latest proposals, Gorbachev may not have one or several new ones. As the U.S. and its allies consider a response, they must remain alert to the possibility, as Britain’s Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe put it, that the “swiftness of the Soviet hand could deceive the Western eye.”


CREDIT: TIME Chart by Cynthis Davis


DESCRIPTION: Listing of U.S. and U.S.S.R. positions on key issues at Reykjavik and Moscow, on illustration of men arguing over paper across a table.

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