Less Than Zero


DIPLOMACY IS NOTHING MORE than a game of chess played on the real-world chessboard, they say, and we all know that Ronald Reagan is no grandmaster. Hindered by inexperience and unsophistication in foreign affairs, he seems incapable of designing the cautions, prudent strategy necessary to lead a superpower in a dangerous and uncertain world.

But Reagan is a politican, and a master one at that. Rarely ir international politics does a single move--short of armed conflict--have the effect of his November 16 speech or American nuclear policy. Facing considerable opposition to his program of rebuilding U.S. military might. Reagan outlined a four-point agenda for reducing conventional and nuclear forces and neatly tripped up the Soviets in the mounting war of words over peace.

Prominent among the agenda items was the proposal to rid Europe of all nuclear missiles--the so-called "zero-option." Under this concept. Washington would forego the planned deployment of 572 Pershing II and cruise missiles in Western Europe in return for Moscow's dismantling of its SS20s, SS5s and SS4s, which are now targeted on Western European cities.

Although the Soviets expressed their opposition to this proposal almost immediately, its pronouncement served several useful purposes to the administration's foreign policy, especially as the two countries resume arms control talks this week in Geneva. The most immediate effect of the "zero-option" was to provide German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt with ammunition to use against Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Brezhnev went to Bonn last week with the unambiguous goal of exploiting policy differences between West Germany--the linchpin of the U.S. NATO alliance--and the U.S. Reagan's proposal gave Schmidt the opportunity to reaffirm the common desire of the U.S. and NATO governments for serious negotiations on mid-range nuclear missiles in Europe, as well as the overall goal of detente with the East.

The proposal also reassured other European governments of U.S. concern for disarmament. In December 1979, when the NATO governments agreed to the deployment of the 108 Pershing II missiles and 464 cruise missiles, they vowed to pursue arms reduction negotiations with the Soviets. This year, the Reagan administration seemed to have contradicted the European plan by emphasizing rearmament rather than disarmament. Statements by administration officials on the possibility of "limited" nuclear wars in Europe horrified NATO leaders, who questioned the deployment of more American missiles on their soil while the U.S. had ostensibly abandoned detented. The "zero-option" provided welcome relief to these leaders by identifying the Americans as compromising and reasonable after all.


Reagan's speech also showed American sensitivity to European domestic opinion. In the past four weeks, approximately 800,000 protesters have marched in the streets of London. Bonn and the Hague, demonstrating significant anti-nuclear sentiments in those countries. In Belgium and the Netherlands, domestic opposition to the planned deployment of nuclear missiles has forced the governments to delay their decisions on accepting the missiles. A strong faction is growing in Schmidt's Social Democratic party, though the chancellor remains staunchly committed to deployment should negotiations fail. He has been forced to delay deployment until April 1984 at the earliest, and has said that West Germany will accept the missiles only if another continental nation does so.

Finally the "Zero-option" effectively vitiates the Soviets propagand which had effectively focused world administration's military build up program and loose talk in Washington about tactical nuclear wars in Europe. Reagan's offer for a joint reduction of nuclear weapons threw the Soviets off-balance while the U.S. seized the arms control initiative.

THE U.S.-SOVIET TALKS on theater nuclear forces in Geneva will show whether the usefulness of the "zero-option" ends with a face-lift of the American image or whether it will provide the basis for serious talks on the reduction of mid-range nuclear missiles in Europe. Brezhnev's offer of a freeze on missile production and deployment during negotiations will probably harden U.S. resolve to stick to its guns at the talks. Mindful of the Carter administration's disastrous bargaining attempts, the Reagan administration is steadfastly determined not to follow suit. Last week, administration officials acted quickly to hush up reports that it had a fall-back position prepared in case the Soviets reject the "zero-option." If the Soviets are to score any points, they will have to do so at the negotiating table.

While adopting a firm position is necessary to keep the Soviets honest, the administration should realize that sending the American delegation to Geneva with a take-it-or-leave-it proposition is hardly worth the plane fares. Although the U.S. has the offensive in the verbal "peace war," the burden is on us to secure an accord. The longer the talks last without any visible progress, the more the U.S. initiative will fade. The European anti-nuclear movement will begin to stir again, accusing Washington of stalling and being insincere about arms reductions. Critics here will charge that the "zero-option" was no more than public relations hype, and American foreign policy will once again have been frustrated.

So even with the wind at their back, U.S. negotiators enter the talks facing something of a quandry: how do we "hang tough" with Moscow in Geneva--an accomplishment that would prove fruitful in future dealings with the Soviets--but at the same time show genuine concern for arms reductions and make progress towards an accord?

Perhaps the most disturbing thing to note is that for this administration, an angry public may not be such a bad thing to cope with, if the alternative is to grant concessions to Moscow. This is not to imply that they are not sincere about serious negotiations. Certainly for them as for everyone else, reducing or eliminating the nuclear missiles in Europe is desirable. But they are sincere only to the extent that success in ridding Europe of nuclear missiles comes hand in hand with successfully out-negotiating Moscow. There cannot be one without the other, for there will be other issues--Afghanistan, Strategic Arms Reduction Talks, Namibia, the Persian Gulf, maybe even other Genevas--that preclude a view of current talks as a be-all and end-all. If the U.S. makes concessions this time around--even if concessions mean a step toward lessening the haunting specter of nuclear war--much credibility and resolve is lost for future encounters. In the final assessment. The "zero-option" when weighed against the price of securing arms reductions, will actually count less than zero.

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