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Every decade or so the Western world frets over what is perceived as the impending dissolution of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. But Mikhail S. Gorbachev was not around for those earlier episodes.Like his predecessors, the Soviet leader has thrown fuel on the smoldering fire of NATO discord. Unlike his predecessors, Gorbachev has taken concrete steps toward what he tells the Europeans is his vision of "our common home," a continent undivided and secure.

The 16-nation alliance is moving toward its May 29 meeting in Brussels feeling the heat of disagreement between West Germany on the one hand and the United States and Britain on the other over negotiating with the Soviets on reductions or elimination of short-range nuclear weapons.

West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, whose coalition faces a tough election next year, is pushing hard for NATO to negotiate but the Bush administration is holding back.

The issue may seem minor in the face of such arms control accomplishments as the 1987 treaty to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear missiles and progress in talks to radically cut the superpower strategic and conventional forces.

But there are fundamental disagreements among the Western allies and the current problem can be blamed in part - but only in part - on skillful exploitation of those differences by the Soviets.

Gorbachev has played the good guy, offering visions of an undivided Europe free of nuclear threat.

His foreign minister, Eduard A. Shevardnadze, has played the heavy, threatening to halt destruction of SS-23 missiles and thereby violate the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force Treaty that was the focal point of the U.S.-Soviet summits of December 1987 and June 1988.

Two other major factors are at work in the current NATO discord.

One is the style, or lack thereof, the Bush administration displays in dealing with the Soviets, symbolized by White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater's description of Gorbachev as a "drugstore cowboy."

The other is more substantive: the fundamental difference between the United States and its European allies over NATO nuclear doctrine, specifically the so-called "flexible response" that envisions the first use of atomic weapons by the West to repel an invasion by superior Soviet conventional forces.

"The United States and Western Europe have different strategies," said Paul Warnke, who was arms control negotiator under President Carter. "The United States wants to keep the war in Europe. The Europeans want the United States and the Soviet Union to blow each other up" and keep the nuclear warheads from falling on Europe.

Gorbachev has capitulated in principle to Western demands to radically reduce conventional armies in Europe, agreeing to eliminate far more Warsaw Pact weapons and forces than he would require of NATO and thereby bringing the opposing alliances into rough numerical parity.

But many details remain to be negotiated, and until then, NATO must rely on flexible response.

That doctrine has made Western political elites secure because it deters Soviet aggression. But every time voters in European democracies take a close look at it, they view the doctrine as fundamentally terrifying, said Richard K. Betts, a NATO specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

"Periodically we get hysterical," he said. "We tend to forget that we have had these wrangles within the alliance in the past. What is different this time is Gorbachev. He is playing some cards that we have not faced on the other side of the table before."

While depicting Gorbachev as a "drugstore cowboy" was not the way to win friends and influence people in the Kremlin, it does focus attention on the style of the Soviet leader.

Gorbachev and his aides "often make sweeping promises without conducting a policy review," said Dmitri Simes, an emigre Soviet analyst who works at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace in Washington.

"They announced a 500,000 cut in the size of the Soviet Armed Forces, and then sat back and watched the front pages. It was only under pressure from Congress, from the administration and from the Western press that they began to figure out what they wanted to cut," Simes told the congressional Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe.