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Slouching Toward an Arms Agreement

10 minute read
Strobe Talbott

In the arcane, often confounding world of nuclear diplomacy, the zero option seems refreshingly simple: the U.S. and the Soviet Union would define a certain category of weapons in a certain region of the world, then wipe clean that particular corner of the slate. In the history of a slogging, controversial enterprise that has so often meant merely regulating the bloated arsenals of the superpowers rather than reducing them, the idea sounds innovative and bold. It would appear to be not just arms control but a big step toward real disarmament. Where now there are hundreds of weapons, soon there would be zero. Everyone can understand that, and most will approve. Most, but not all.

The zero option has had a bizarre, irony-ridden career. Born as a slogan of the European left in the late 1970s, kidnaped and turned to their purposes by Reaganaut hard-liners in 1981, now adopted and turned to his own use by Mikhail Gorbachev, it may come to maturity at a summit later this year as the first arms-control agreement in nearly a decade — but also as the object of intense opposition.

At the heart of the debate is the ongoing attempt by the superpowers to manipulate each other’s nightmares of war in order to maneuver for advantage in times of peace. The West has long wanted the Kremlin to fear that a Soviet attack on Europe, even with conventional weapons, might provoke American nuclear retaliation. That fear, in turn, is supposed to deter the Soviets from bullying Western Europe militarily or throwing its considerable weight around politically.

NATO strategy has required that some American nuclear weapons be based in the territory of Western Europe, capable of reaching targets inside the Soviet Union and guaranteeing that the U.S. would not just come to Europe’s defense but would do so with nuclear weapons. The independent deterrents of Britain and France by definition cannot function as an American trip wire, and U.S.-based strategic weapons might sit out a war in Europe. U.S. short-range and battlefield weapons might blunt a Soviet blitzkrieg but cannot carry the war to the Soviet homeland. In the jargon of nukespeak, some Europe-based, intermediate-range American weapons are necessary to serve the cause of “coupling” between the U.S. and its allies.

For more than two decades, the U.S. had some short-range missiles in Europe, such as ballistic Pershing I’s in West Germany. Coupling depended largely on intermediate-range, nuclear-armed U.S. aircraft at bases on allied soil and on carriers patrolling the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean. In order to attack the U.S.S.R., fighter-bombers would have to run a gauntlet of Soviet antiaircraft installations, but nonetheless they were deemed a sufficient counter to clunky, obsolescent Soviet missiles.

However, in the late 1970s, Moscow began fielding an extremely formidable new generation of intermediate-range nuclear missile. Designated by NATO the SS-20, it was mobile and carried three independently targetable warheads. By giving the Soviet Union a monopoly in a whole category of weapons — modern land-based, intermediate-range ballistic missiles — the SS-20 was seen to be “decoupling.” Western strategists could imagine the two sides’ intercontinental missiles holding each other in check while the SS-20s allowed the Soviets to dominate the intermediate-range bishops and knights in the European squares on the board. As a result, the pawns — tanks, artillery and infantry — would suddenly become more important, and the overwhelming numerical superiority of the Warsaw Pact’s conventional forces might be the determining factor in a political crisis.

Former West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt gave a landmark speech in London ten years ago, raising the alarm over the SS-20 and calling on the U.S. to redress the imbalance. American officials and experts were at first reluctant, in part because they feared that whatever Schmidt wanted, many in West Germany and elsewhere would protest the deployments and blame the U.S. for escalating the arms race.

But Schmidt and other Europeans persisted, and in December 1979, toward the end of the Carter Administration, allied ministers met in Brussels and committed their governments to the so-called two-track decision. NATO would proceed toward deployment, beginning in late 1983, of 572 new intermediate- range American missiles in Europe to offset the SS-20s. Five NATO members would accept batteries of Tomahawk ground-launched cruise missiles, and West Germany would also permit the upgrading of the Pershing I to the Pershing II, which has more than twice the range and a much more accurate warhead. At the same time, the U.S. would propose negotiations with the Soviets on a scaled- back deployment of American intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) in exchange for a reduction in SS-20s.

The Reagan Administration inherited the two-track decision. Some key officials would have preferred to dump it onto the ash heap of history. Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle, the leading hard-liner, failed to prevent the Administration from accepting the two-track policy, but he won the next battle: the U.S. proposed that if the Soviets eliminated all their SS-20s, NATO would not just restrict its prospective deployment but cancel it altogether. The simplicity and boldness of the scheme appealed to Reagan, and it had the advantage of seeming to give some of the noisier Europeans what they wanted. Pacifists and critics of NATO in Schmidt’s Social Democratic Party had called for the Null-Losung, the “zero solution,” although for them, along with “ban the Bomb” and “zone of peace,” it was part of the vocabulary of European neutralism. Thus Perle was able, in a single catchy phrase, to appeal to both European leftists and the conservative new American President.

Some critics on both sides of the Atlantic pointed out at the time that the zero option was no solution to the problem of decoupling. The SS-20 was just one manifestation of the Soviet buildup threatening Western Europe, and therefore the U.S. should proceed with at least some INF deployments in any event. But that complaint was largely academic, since no one believed the Soviets would ever accept the zero option in advance of the American deployment at the end of 1983.

The INF talks in Geneva quickly became a smoke screen for the real contest, which was a political and propaganda struggle between Moscow and Washington over the divided hearts and minds of the Europeans on the issue of deployment. The Reagan Administration tinkered with the zero option in ways calculated to ensure that full deployment went ahead on schedule, while Moscow waved a variety of carrots and sticks, all intended to prevent any American missiles from being deployed.

The Soviets seemed particularly concerned about the ballistic Pershing II, because they believed it could reach their command-and-control bunkers, and other vital points deep inside the U.S.S.R., in a matter of minutes. But beyond its military concerns, the Kremlin was trying to make a political point: that the U.S. was not a legitimate power on the continent of Europe, and therefore had no right to put its missiles there.

Only once did the diplomatic activity in Geneva become a genuine negotiation. That was when the heads of the two delegations, Paul Nitze and Yuli Kvitsinsky, went for a walk on a wooded mountainside in July 1982 and agreed on a compromise: the Soviet Union would reduce its SS-20s in Europe by two-thirds, keeping 75 missiles with a total of 225 warheads; the U.S. would give up the Pershing II but proceed with deployment of 300 cruise missiles. That outcome would have been better for the West than the zero option, since it would have affirmed the U.S.’s right to put new INF missiles on European soil and thereby the principle of coupling.

But the “walk in the woods” formula was rejected in both capitals. Perle led the attack on Nitze in Washington, convincing the President that it was unfair to let the Soviets keep a monopoly in INF ballistic missiles. The U.S., Perle argued successfully, must hold out for the Pershing II as part of the eventual deployment package. When the first American missiles arrived in Europe in November 1983, it was a major political defeat for the Soviets, and they walked out of the INF talks. All arms-control efforts went into limbo for the duration of Reagan’s first term.

Once again the phrase zero option is in the headlines. It was Gorbachev who put it there. Early last year Gorbachev offered to “liquidate” INF missiles in Europe as part of a package deal on strategic-arms reduction and limits on space-based defenses. At the October meeting in Reykjavik, he and Reagan reached an impasse on Star Wars, but in February Gorbachev unlinked INF from the issues of strategic offense and defense and called for a separate deal on Euromissiles. Much as Perle had commandeered the idea from the German left, Gorbachev was now stealing it back.

Today’s zero option is quite different from the 1981 version. Back then the U.S. was starting from zero and offering to stay there if the Soviets came down to zero as well — dismantling an entire class of weapons already deployed, in exchange for NATO’s altering future plans. As members of the Administration themselves admitted at the time, it was like asking the Super Bowl champs to trade their All-Pro front line for two future-round draft choices. The result, predictably and perhaps intentionally, was no deal.

Now Gorbachev is offering a real trade. The U.S. has 316 missiles of its own and will have to remove them from Europe if the Soviets remove their 922 warheads. While the U.S. will get the better end numerically, the Soviets will satisfy their determination to get American INF missiles out of Europe, albeit at a considerable price.

That feature of the plan has raised old worries at home and abroad. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and Congressman Les Aspin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, have resurrected the fear that the zero option may be decoupling. Some Europeans are concerned that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and other leaders have invested so much political capital in forcing through the deployments despite domestic opposition that it would be awkward for them now to feign enthusiasm for the total removal of the missiles.

Largely for these reasons, the Reagan Administration was in something of a quandary about how to react. Having originally proposed the zero option in 1981 and hung tough on it through ’82 and ’83, the Administration felt it could not say no now that Gorbachev was finally saying yes.

Thus, with some of his aides swallowing hard, Reagan may go to the summit and the treaty-signing table in the fall having to contend with criticism that he is selling short the political and military interests of the West. As the . final irony of the zero option, that criticism may be coming from the paragons of the arms-control establishment, whose own efforts to manage the nuclear peace Reagan himself opposed so vigorously during the era of detente.

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