President Reagan has temporarily knocked the props out from under the European disarmament movement with his "zero option" proposal on intermediate-range nuclear missiles. By offering to cancel deployment of 572 Pershing 2 and Tomahawk missiles in exchange for Soviet scrapping of 692 SS-4, SS-5, and SS-20 missiles, the President has challenged the Soviets to put up or shut up in their claims to favor peace.
In fact, the zero option would still leave the Soviets ahead in numbers. Counting in all NATO and Soviet nuclear-capable aircraft and intermediate-range submarine-launched missiles, the Soviets would be left with a 1,537-to-825 lead after the zero-option cuts.
Even so, the zero option is a modest step in the right direction. And it is far preferable to such half-way measures as mere reductions in the number of SS-20s or their removal behind the Ural mountains. Because the SS-20 launcher is both mobile and reloadable, anything less than a total ban would be much harder to verify. And given recent Soviet defiance of treaties and international law—cheating on SALT I, using biological weapons in Southeast Asia in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention, sending nuclear-armed submarines into neutral Sweden's waters—it would be foolish to enter into any new arms-limitation treaty without stringent provisions for on-site inspection.
These realities make the zero option unlikely to be adopted. That being the case, debate over the missiles will resume, and the disarmers will continue to demonstrate. And that will force Americans to come to grips with the fundamental flaw in NATO.
The rationale for upgrading NATO's intermediate-range missiles goes to the heart of the matter. For three decades the principal defense of Europe has been, not Europe's own military and arms, but the US nuclear shield. In the face of massive Warsaw Pact superiority in conventional forces, NATO's strategy has been to station a contingent of US troops in the front lines, so that an attack on Western Europe would involve Americans from the outset. The Americans would respond with tactical nuclear weapons and, if need be, with US-based strategic nuclear weapons. Thus, defense of Europe was "coupled" with the US nuclear shield.
But the credibility of this shield has crumbled over the past decades as the Soviets built up their strategic nuclear forces to what many analysts consider superiority. Would an American president, wonder many Europeans, risk the annihilation of US cities in order to defend Europe from Soviet tanks? They wonder with good reason.
More and more Americans are questioning the rationale for NATO. While there is nothing wrong in principle with mutual defense alliances, it seems clear that, as presently structured, NATO is hardly a mutual defense alliance as far as this country is concerned. The alliance's purpose is to defend Europe, but the United States still pays about 60 percent of the bills, even though European NATO members' combined gross national product is about equal to that of the United States.
When pressed, advocates of NATO fall back on the claim that, without massive US subsidy, the Europeans would refuse to pay for an adequate defense and would fall prey to Soviet conquest or Finlandization. In other words, the Europeans seem to be saying, "Do what we say or we'll commit suicide." This brings to mind the scene in Mel Brooks's Blazing Saddles in which black sheriff Cleavon Little is surrounded by hostile white townspeople. All of a sudden, Little whips out his six-gun, points it at his head, and shouts, "The first one of you makes a move, the nigger gets it. Now drop your guns!" Taken aback, the people comply and Little escapes.
No one can say for sure what Europeans would do if US protection were withdrawn, but one good clue is provided by France. As long ago as the mid-1950s, Charles DeGaulle began to doubt the credibility of the nuclear shield. So he pulled France out of the NATO military command (while retaining membership in NATO) and set about creating an independent nuclear force. Today France has 6 nuclear armed ballistic missile submarines, 33 nuclear-armed Mirage IV bombers, and 18 silo-mounted IRBMs. The Mitterand government has just authorized construction of a seventh nuclear sub, the mobile SX missile to replace the Mirages, and the short-range Hades missile designed to carry a neutron warhead. The French submarines will be upgraded with the new M-4 missile armed with multiple warheads.
Whether West Germany would respond that way to a US withdrawal, nobody can predict. But one strongly suspects (and opinion polls bear this out) that a majority of Germans would not be content to sit back and do nothing, as the disarmers advocate. Whether Germany would develop its own nuclear deterrent like France, join a revamped European mutual defense pact, or choose armed neutrality like Sweden and Switzerland is impossible to say. But the choice is one for Germans, not Americans, to make.
It's long past time that we faced the fact that World War II is over. Europe has been reconstructed. It is absurd for our wealthy and prosperous trading partners to continue as dependent nations whose destinies lie in the hands of the US National Security Council.
Europeans are not blind. They know they have immense productive capacities that are worth defending and whose resources provide the means of paying for that defense. And they need look no further than Poland to see the price they might pay if they allow themselves to come under Soviet domination.
No, the Europeans are no fools. It is we who are fools if we go on believing that only American money and weapons and lives can defend Europe. But as long as we continue to believe it, most Europeans will be glad to go along for the ride. And they'll continue to put off acknowledging that their only true security will come from taking responsibility for their own defense.