Demilitarizing Europe: It Takes Two Not to Tango

By Tirman, John | The Nation, April 17, 1989 | Go to article overview

Demilitarizing Europe: It Takes Two Not to Tango


Tirman, John, The Nation


On the eve of the conventional arms talks in Vienna, British Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe remarked that NATO had no intention of being drawn into a "competitive striptease" with Moscow. He was reacting to the Soviet proposal, released on March 6, which calls for deep cuts and a new defensive orientation of forces. The West is often perplexed by Soviet peace initiatives, and this appears to be the case again, even though the ideas embodied in the Soviet Union's plan have Western roots.

Secretary of State James Baker 3d, though not as candid as Howe, at first advised his alliance colleagues to treat the Soviet Union's "sweeping but impractical" proposals skeptically. Then, following a March 7 meeting with his Russian counterpart, Eduard Shevardnadze, Baker described the plan as "remarkably close to the NATO proposal." His optimism was widely echoed by opinion- and policy-makers in the United States throughout March. Particularly welcome was the first of the three-stage plan, in which the Warsaw Pact countries would drastically reduce their advantage in tanks. But U.S. leaders are uneasy about further-and equal -cuts envisioned for stage two. Of the third phase, in which new notions of "defensive defense" are central, there has been virtually no comment.

In Western Europe, however, innovative theories of 'nonoffensive" defense have been nurtured for more than a decade. The theories sketch out a security relationship in which each side reduces forces and reshapes them to constrain the ability to attack quickly, decisively and deeply across the central front dividing Europe. To achieve those objectives, each side must eliminate or reduce threatening weaponry: tanks, "deep interdiction" attack aircraft, long-range missiles and the like. Defensive weapons -antitank devices, for example-would be substituted, and demilitarized corridors and other "confidence -building" measures would be established. The key concept is the reduction of offensive threats to insure that any blitzkrieg strategy would fail. The easing of threats would also arrest the arms race that growing offensive capability inevitably spurs.

These nonoffensive defense ideas gradually gained a foothold in Europe. By the mid-1980s the British Labor Party, the West German Social Democratic Party and likeminded politicians of other parties adopted some of the new theories as their official position. In February, social democrats throughout Europe endorsed aspects of defensive defense for the upcoming election campaign for the European Parliament.

Ironically, Gorbachev appropriated the ideas of European and American researchers in devising the sweeping proposal forwarded last month in Vienna. Jorgen Dragsdahl, a defense writer and editor with the Copenhagen daily Information, has traced this influence and attributes it to peace researchers such as Anders Boserup in Denmark, Robert Neild in Britain and Horst Afheldt in West Germany. Through seminars and consultations with Soviet policy analysts, some of their ideas gradually filtered into the Kremlin. A few Soviet diplomats, notably Lev Meldelevich, former Ambassador to Denmark, took a keen interest in the theories and channeled them back to Moscow.

By 1986 the language of nonoffensive defense began to appear in speeches and official statements of key advisers to Gorbachev. Increasingly, the Soviet leader hinted at his own conversion. Then, in his dramatic speech before the U.N. General Assembly last December 7, Gorbachev announced this defensive orientation in tandem with his vow to unilaterally cut 10,000 tanks and 500,000 troops from Soviet forces. The reaction of the Washington establishment to that speech was a befuddled silence. Despite the widespread acceptance by European defense intellectuals of nonoffensive defense ideas, they have been ignored in the United States. The emphasis in U.S. policy circles instead has been on burden-sharing within NATO; the potential for burden reduction, combined with the stability promised by defensive strategies, has not been seriously explored. …

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Demilitarizing Europe: It Takes Two Not to Tango
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