• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Coming Down from the Summit


The third summit meeting between President Reagan and Secretary General Gorbachev was very different from the two previous ones.1 In Geneva in 1985, nothing concrete was achieved; Reykjavík ended in failure after an unexpected trip to utopia. The Washington meeting was much more carefully prepared for. The treaty eliminating intermediate and shorter-range missiles provided for elaborate and unprecedented verification procedures inside the Soviet Union. Some progress was made in the difficult negotiations for the reduction of strategic nuclear arsenals by as much as 50 percent; but an agreement continues to depend on a reconciliation of the two governments’ positions on strategic defenses. In Washington Reagan and Gorbachev merely agreed to continue to disagree on the subject, and to postpone a showdown. Regional conflicts and human rights were discussed, but the two sides remained far from agreement on such issues as Soviet extrication from Afghanistan or Soviet emigration policies.

The Washington summit raises three issues for the future. One is the fate of the Strategic Defense Initiative. The gap between the two sides has narrowed somewhat, because the Soviets have become more flexible concerning the development and testing of defenses allowable under the ABM Treaty of 1972. Moreover, the refusal by Congress to accept the so-called broad interpretation of the treaty advocated by the administration—an interpretation that makes the treaty banning the development and deployment of defensive systems largely meaningless—has constrained the President’s drive toward unlimited research, development, and testing. But it remains difficult to imagine that the Soviets would accept a 50 percent reduction in offensive nuclear weapons unless the two sides agree either on banning the deployment of defensive systems or on strictly limiting them, say, to the protection of the fixed land-based nuclear ballistic missiles among those that would remain after the 50 percent reductions.

If the US refused to settle for such a solution, the Soviets would try to negate the effects of the American defensive effort, probably not by building a matching defensive system, which would be too costly and could be technologically unreachable, but by devising countermeasures and by multiplying the offensive weapons that could overwhelm American defenses.

It is unlikely that President Reagan will accept any limits on his dream of perfect defenses; but it is conceivable that his successor will be more awed by the costs of the combined defensive and offensive arms races that a failure to accept such limits would provoke and that he will be more aware of the laws of physics. Most of the US scientific community has expressed its skepticism about the feasibility of the President’s project. The Soviets are playing a waiting game, carrying on their own laser research while reminding us that they will not give up their policy of linking reductions in offensive weapons to the curtailment of “Star Wars.”


The second issue for the future is raised by the INF treaty. It concerns the relations between the US and its West European allies. They have formally applauded the treaty but there is a huge difference between a facade of unanimity and the genuine disarray of the NATO alliance. While the public, in the nations of Western Europe, seems to greet the dismantling of hundreds of missiles stationed in Europe or aimed at European targets with relief, the political and intellectual elites are divided. In West Germany, ex-chancellor Helmut Schmidt, whose 1977 speech about the danger created by the Soviet SS20s led to NATO’s 1979 decision to deploy new American missiles, has firmly endorsed the agreement. A variety of politicians, including Christian Democrats and right-wing leaders, would like arms control to extend soon to sharp reductions in, or even elimination of, a third category of nuclear weapons: the short-range systems (under 500 kilometers), whose most salient characteristic, for a good many Germans, appears to be that they would mainly kill Germans (East and West). But others worry about the removal of nuclear weapons altogether, and cling to the remaining short-range ones (whose modernization threatens to become a very controversial issue); and they agree with the French politicians who have been the most severely critical of the agreement. The British ones are also divided, along party lines, and British conservatives have talked of a sharp halt in further nuclear reductions; but Mrs. Thatcher’s friendship with Reagan has muted criticism.

The French have once more been the most outspoken in their hostility. On the right, only former president Giscard d’Estaing has approved the treaty. Mitterrand has been cautiously favorable, but many Socialists have joined in the attack, led by diplomatic and military experts. The main arguments in this attack deserve to be described, all the more so because they are to be found in Britain and West Germany as well. There is, first, a sense of deep frustration at having been, once more, left out: a strategic decision concerning Europe was reached by the superpowers behind the backs of the Europeans, and America’s allies were merely informed of the progress of the deal, given soothing words by their senior partner, and asked to applaud. A French conservative intellectual, Jean-Marie Benoist, writes:

This agreement is like a procedure by which a landlord eager to protect himself against burglars through an alarm system invites the chief burglar to come to his table to discuss the quantity and quality of the systems necessary to his survival.2

This expresses perfectly the fear and bitterness about dependency that many West Europeans have had whenever the two great rivals seemed to be getting together. In France especially, the “Yalta analogy,” often in a misleading version, is always present.3

There is a deep divergence in strategic conceptions between the French (and many other Europeans) and a growing number of Americans. The French are unconditional believers in nuclear deterrence. Conventional deterrence has only rarely succeeded; nuclear deterrence, as they see it, has protected Europe from war—any war—for more than forty years. Nuclear weapons preserve peace; the more nuclear weapons, the more peace. The French, and the governments of several NATO countries, supported the deployment of American intermediate nuclear forces in Western Europe because they had become convinced that, at a time of growing Soviet nuclear and conventional power, only such weapons stationed on European soil could be sure to deter the Soviets from dangerous moves on the Continent. Many West European strategic experts had accepted the views of a faction of US strategic planners, according to which the risk of escalation to nuclear war of any armed confrontation on the Continent was not a sufficient deterrent; rather, the only credible nuclear deterrent would be one that matches the Soviet forces on every rung of the hypothetical ladder of escalation. 4 Thus the Soviets’ SS20s had to be faced with weapons like the Pershing II, which are capable of hitting military targets in the USSR. The French (unlike their neighbors, in this respect) have always been suspicious of arms control. They have also been afraid (like the British) that nuclear agreements between the superpowers would sooner or later lead the Americans and the Russians to request that the French and British nuclear forces also be subjected to limitations or reductions.

In the beginning of the 1980s what might be called European officialdom, while deploring loose talk by the Reagan administration about possible limited nuclear war, applauded its determination to strengthen deterrence, and the French were relieved by its distrust of arms control. But then surprises multiplied. American faith in deterrence appeared to crumble. Some of the American strategic planners, particularly those on the left, warned that the new, more accurate weapon systems of both the Soviets and the Americans—weapons capable of destroying the other side’s nuclear missiles—could incite each of the rivals to attack preemptively during a crisis. They argued that both sides were thus inexorably moving from stable deterrence to a much more provocative and perilous relationship comparable to that of the European forces in 1914.

On the right, there came the double shock of what Henry Kissinger has called the delegitimation of nuclear weapons,5 first when the President launched his SDI as a miracle method for making nuclear weapons obsolete, and three years later when the two rival leaders, in Reykjavík, daydreamed about the abolition of nuclear weapons within ten years. And arms control, once denounced by the Reaganites as a dangerous delusion, revived in earnest.

Even those Americans who still believe in the solidity of nuclear deterrence seem to be moving away from the belief that its effectiveness requires a complete panoply of weapons entirely symmetrical to that of the Soviets. Between the French critics and the American supporters of the INF treaty there is a remarkable dialogue in which the French throw at their American interlocutors the very arguments they previously learned from them—arguments which, much to their indignation, the French now find dismissed by the Americans who had been their tutors not so many years ago. American supporters of the treaty point to the fact that the Soviets will destroy four times as many warheads as the US, and that Western Europe continues to be protected, not only by thousands of short-range, ground-based nuclear systems, but by American planes armed with nuclear weapons, by sea-launched ballistic missiles on submarines assigned to NATO, and by sea-launched cruise missiles. The French reply that Americans told them some years ago that Soviet defenses could, or might, stop the planes, and that missiles launched from the seas are less effective deterrents—because less precisely accurate—against Soviet land-based missiles than the ground-launched ones that will be destroyed.

The French position, a kind of Cartesianism gone wild, is full of paradoxes. When NATO, in the 1960s, switched from a strategy of “massive retaliation” to “flexible response” (delaying the resort to strategic nuclear weapons in case of a conventional attack), the French denounced the shift as weakening deterrence. Now they are the most steadfast champions of flexible response for NATO forces,6 and argue that the weapons that will be destroyed were precisely those required by such a strategy. They explain that these were the ideal weapons for “coupling” the security of Western Europe to that of the US, because any Soviet attack was most likely to trigger the use of these weapons (which might otherwise be overrun), whereas a resort to planes or submarines by the president of the US is more dubious. But if the mere removal of the Pershings and the ground-launched cruise missiles “decouples” Western Europe from the US, then Western Europe was decoupled for twenty years: between the withdrawal by the Kennedy administration of American obsolete missiles from Turkey and other countries, in 1963, and the deployments that occurred between 1983 and 1987. And yet the Soviets remained deterred throughout.

The French also contend that the Soviets’ decision to destroy their SS20s and other shorter-range systems is no sacrifice at all, given the obsolescence of the SS20s and the Soviet ability to hit the same targets with their intercontinental missiles including the SS25. But Europeans had called for the Pershings precisely because of the danger represented by the accuracy of the SS20s (i.e., by the modernized characteristics and mobility of that weapon). The French critics have so far ignored the fact that the Soviet targets covered by the Pershings and ground-launched cruise missiles can be attacked by US planes and will soon be reachable by the Trident II submarines, as well as by American intercontinental land-based missiles. The French themselves are developing new short-range ground-launched missiles and air-launched cruise missiles. In private some of the European opponents of the INF treaty will acknowledge that there remain more than enough missiles to cover Soviet targets and deter an attack; but they deplore the psychological and political effects of demolishing ground-based missiles that can reach the USSR. By not taking sufficient account of the remaining weapons in public debate, they help create the sense of weakness they fear.

  1. 1

    See my essays “Fog Over the Summit,” The New York Review (January 16, 1986), pp. 22–26, and “An Icelandic Saga,” The New York Review (November 20, 1986, pp. 15–17.

  2. 2

    Jean-Marie Benoist, “Euro-missiles: à quoi bon cet accord,” Le Monde (December 1, 1987), p. 2; also, his article with Hans Huyn and Gerald Frost in The Wall Street Journal (December 9, 1987), p. 39.

  3. 3

    See Alain Peyrefitte in Le Figaro (December 9, 1987): “Un parfum de Yalta.”

  4. 4

    See François de Rose, “Dissuader de la guerre et dissuader de la crise,” Politique internationale, No. 37 (Fall 1987), p. 115.

  5. 5

    Newsweek (October 12, 1987), pp. 57–60.

  6. 6

    See Jean Villars (pseudonym of a French defense official), “Un parapluie en dentelle,” Politique internationale, No.37 (Fall 1987), pp. 123–136. For their own nuclear forces, the French have insisted that full nuclear retaliation would follow quickly after the first warning exchange.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print