How Russia Decides to Go Nuclear
Deciphering the Way Moscow Handles Its Ultimate Weapon
The watershed date was November 9, 1989; the breaching of the Berlin Wall was the dramatic symbol of a new, profoundly different era in Europe. It is now clear that the wall's collapse offered indisputable proof that the Soviet Union would not use the Red Army to maintain the East-West divide. There had already been Soviet hints, speeches and gestures apparently voiding the Brezhnev Doctrine of intervention. But only when the Soviet threat was tested and found dead indeed was it certain that nothing could remain the same. It took a little while for the implications to be understood and for the East European regimes to collapse, but November 9 was the day when the question for Europe changed from how to maintain a divided and hostile peace to how to organize a new, inclusive continental system.
There had been no plans, no preparations. The end of the division of Europe, however, brought with it a momentum of inevitability. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev rubbed it in for his critics, nostalgic for empire, at the 28th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in July 1990. "Do you want tanks again? Shall we teach them again how to live?" he tartly asked those who blamed him for the "loss" of Soviet dominion over Eastern Europe. "There is no way of bringing yesterday back. No dictatorship, if someone has this crazy idea in his head, can resolve anything."
It is easier to understand why this became so if, rather than wonder at the extraordinary speed with which the structures of Cold War geopolitics fell apart, we ask why the change was so long in coming. The pressure had been building for at least two generations. Already in 1953, eight years after Germany's total defeat in World War II, the workers of East Berlin had risen. In 1956 Poland began a long series of upheavals and Hungary erupted in open revolt. Czechoslovakia tested the possibility of reform in 1968, and failed. At first, the peoples of Eastern Europe were exhausted by war, then bewildered by their new regimes, in some cases inspired by the promises of communism after their devastating experience in the 1930s.
Only gradually could the peoples of Eastern Europe accumulate the strength and determination that would allow them to seize the opportunity, when it came, to break free. Meanwhile, communist promises turned to mockery. Nikita Khrushchev told Western diplomats in November 1956, "History is on our side. We will bury you." He meant that the inherent superiority of the Soviet system would soon produce a standard of living and social satisfaction far ahead of the West, and many then thought it conceivable. But education and information spread throughout the Eastern bloc, and so did cynicism as people became aware of the widening chasm between their own prospects and those of the flourishing West. It was evident that a very different kind of economic integration and political conformity, the one denounced by the communists as embodying the "bourgeois values" of democracy, enterprise and freedom, was central to Western Europe's success. In the East, including the Soviet Union, intellectuals set a new goal of becoming "a normal country," and by that they meant a Western-style country.
The demand was there. It was overwhelming by the time the chance to act came. But the means for satisfying it had scarcely been imagined. Finding them became the new task, and quite naturally the first idea in everybody's mind was to "join" the West, to make Europe "whole" by becoming full participants. Obviously, this would take cooperation and assistance, but there was no ready refuge for the newly independent states, no habit of mutual support beyond the old subservience to Moscow. That was when talk turned to inventing a new "European architecture," a structure that could embrace countries set free and feeling intensely vulnerable. Poland's keen-minded Bronislaw Geremek, parliamentary leader of Solidarity, put the ambition succinctly. "People aren't interested in alliances with poor neighbors. They want to be with the rich countries," he told a Western audience.
But the European Community would not, could not, simply take them in. Theirs is a club with obligations as well as benefits, with an agenda and timetable of its own, and nobody in the East is going to be up to the standards of membership for a critical number of years. For some time, President Gorbachev had been talking of a "Common European House," a way of saying that the Soviet Union had abandoned East-West confrontation and wanted to be included, not set apart, from integrative evolution. Jacques Delors, president of the EC's Commission, gave a crisp answer to any arguments for urgency in opening the barriers at the EC's June 1990 summit in Dublin. "I consider the Common House a village, with one house for the Community," he said. "For the time being, I keep my key in my pocket."
So time has become the crucial factor. The "Whither Europe?" debate, in the long term, can be an agreeable academic exercise, with little controversy over guarantees of peace and cooperation, over the goal of one day achieving some kind of "confederation," to cite the murky notion of French President François Mitterrand. The difficult questions concern the middle term, the period of transformation, which is going to be painful and risky as grievances mount and patience erodes, demagogues rise to make use of new freedoms to exploit nationalism, carpetbaggers prey on undeveloped market and legal structures. The short-term problems are more easily identified, if massively difficult to solve, but they too could be faced with more confidence if there were a sense that the way ahead were charted.
There are certain contradictions among the points that need to be taken into account. The countries of what is coming to be called East-central Europe have various needs in common, but to organize the region on that basis would perniciously serve to perpetuate Cold War divisions. These must be transcended. The Soviet Union is qualitatively and quantitatively different from Eastern Europe. Even if it breaks up, Russia alone is a huge Euro-Asian power and will not fit as an equal among European peers. It cannot be excluded, but can hardly be included as just another member of the family. Germany will acquire an awesome weight that must somehow be bounded and distributed so as not to crush its partners. The U.S. role will shift as military power loses importance; security will remain an important issue, though its parameters will be redefined. No single design can encompass all this, but the elements must be linked.
History, geography and the special magnetism of the EC made it natural for Western Europe to take the lead once it was understood that a welcome must be extended to the dislodged East. The Council of Europe offered an initial haven, scarcely more than symbolic; with its 23 member-nations and its admission requirement of democratic government, the Council offered a way of signaling that Eastern Europe's desire for political change was taken seriously. Hungary will be accepted late this year. Poland, Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria have received "special guest" status. The Eastern hope is that the Council of Europe will serve as antechamber to the EC, a kind of apprenticeship.
Brussels has encouraged each country to apply separately for association or some special agreement with the Common Market, a one-by-one approach that clearly puts the newcomers at a disadvantage and provokes at least a psychological competition that weakens them. In any case, the European Commission is in the midst of negotiating a new association agreement with the countries of the European Free Trade Association that takes priority and is considered a necessary precedent. There is disagreement within the EC on membership applications from Austria and possibly from Norway, and there is thus no urge at all to get into the far trickier issues of extending privileges to the fragile economies of the East. The EFTA accord, to be in place by 1993, is expected to provide full market access (so long as the applicants accept Community rules and standards), but no voice in EC governance or access to the Community's special funds. For the East, a promise of similar status would be better than being shut out, but it would offer little real comfort.
The search for some special provision to meet immediate needs was influenced by the sequence of events. By mid-1989, at the time of the Paris summit of seven leading industrial nations, Poland and Hungary alone had undertaken sufficient political and economic reform to merit Western aid; this aid policy was intended to encourage the other East European countries toward reform without provoking the Soviets. No one could yet be sure that Moscow had not drawn a line beyond which it would intervene. The need for coordination of the limited Western help likely to become available was evident, and it made sense to assign the task to the European Commission. Few realized then that this would become the basis for a major political decision about how to proceed with a profound reorganization of Europe, implying a sideline role for the United States. But the decision would probably have been the same no matter what, because neither time nor money was available on a scale to produce a grander scheme. The response was patchwork, and urgent.
Before it went very far, the scope of the operation had to be completely reassessed. East Germany had become a special case, the prime responsibility of a West Germany that could absorb it, but with disturbing implications. There was the risk of creating new East-West dividing lines, cutting off the poor nations to the east of Germany or, later, cutting off the Soviets. More important, there was the sense that the mighty German economy would fill the vacuum left by the Soviet Union to become Europe's new hegemon. As Geremek said in the same speech directed at the West, "Poland's two headaches (Russia and Germany) can be your headaches too. Central Europe is coming back with some very peculiar problems, national problems, which can be the third headache of the world."
The East had stood still during the postwar era while the West gradually found ways to accommodate old national quarrels. Now Eastern Europe had the historic task of catching up, but it had no bootstraps to pull on. Without some new framework, some firm basis for organization, the danger was reversion to the interwar rivalry of national states and a renewed attempt at forming competitive alliances to balance a perception of unfriendly neighbors. This is keenly understood on the continent. Belgium's Foreign Minister Mark Eyskens wrote recently, "What has to be prevented at all costs in tomorrow's Europe is the rekindling of nationalism as the result of a renaissance of the nation-state." Italy's Foreign Minister Gianni De Michelis expressed the same thought, stressing the need for "amalgamation rather than fragmentation." Through the Marshall Plan and then NATO, the West had developed habits of mutual support entirely lacking in the East.
For the East European nations, a single great leap from national self-reliance, so freshly reacquired and cherished, to general integration is not going to be possible. Some form of regionalism is necessary, and history provides the obvious suggestions: a Danubian grouping (recalling Austria-Hungary) and a northern, more or less Baltic grouping. The political advantages of such a development are twofold. It would transcend rather than prolong Cold War geography, and it would put some specific gravity between Germany and Russia to reduce the historical sense of a "squeeze." Italy, Austria, Yugoslavia and Hungary launched a modest but potentially significant southern grouping in the fall of 1989, adding Czechoslovakia when Prague changed regimes. Sweden began talks with Poland, and is considering inviting Finland, Denmark and eventually perhaps the Soviet Baltic republics to form the nucleus of a Baltic group, which could include Czechoslovakia on appropriate issues.
The pattern need not be exclusive, on the model of the Common Market's development. Overlaps are possible and desirable according to specific functions: transport, communications, market access, environment, and so on. What matters is the development of partnerships to aggregate the capacity for dealing with issues that are insoluble on a single-nation basis and not yet feasible for a Europe-wide solution. Spontaneity has produced an assortment of schemes, none of them as yet successful. The trouble seems to be primarily that an outside catalyst, guide and support, such as the Marshall Plan provided, is needed to identify bottlenecks and the contributions that partners can usefully make to each other. One promising idea, suggested by the Czechoslovaks, would be for Western aid to finance critical exports from Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia to the Soviet Union for hard currency, easing the transition for their own industries unable yet to compete in the West, meeting Soviet shortages, creating counterpart funds for new investment, and moving them all toward real convertibility.
So far none of the Western plans for Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union address the need for regional cooperation. They focus on conversion to private enterprise and the market-which is needed but will not be achieved fast enough to have widespread effect-and conceive of coordination only in terms of funneling Western money and expertise. This is the approach of the Bank for European Reconstruction and Development, still in the organizing stage, whose officials do not foresee its having a capability to evoke and manage multilateral plans. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, itself a descendant of the Marshall Plan, is planning a series of ad hoc groups along the required lines. Its secretary-general, Jean-Claude Paye, is keenly aware of the need for the multiplier effect of aid given in such a concerted way. But there is as yet no provision for a structure to achieve it and create integrative habits. The United States has the necessary experience and should urge this.
Of course, Comecon did impose trade patterns, and that is part of the problem. It tied the Eastern bloc together and served Soviet requirements, cutting its members off from the world market, assuring inefficiencies and discouraging the achievement of competitive standards. Well before last year's political changes, Hungarians were complaining that because of Comecon they had developed products that could be sold only in the East, preventing the earning of hard currency to import the machinery to make products that could be sold in the West. The vicious circle has to be broken, but it cannot be done simply by canceling existing contracts. The participants are interdependent to such a degree that an abrupt shift would mean disaster.
West Germany has understood and accepted this in terms of East German-Soviet trade. In return primarily for oil and gas, East Germany has been providing 25 percent of Soviet machinery imports and 45 percent of machine tool imports. Neither side can simply switch to the open market without incurring a crippling disruption in trade. Bonn is assuring Moscow that the participating firms will be reasonably weaned from existing contracts, not cut off, and the $3-billion credit Bonn has unilaterally offered the Soviets will in large part support this.
Given the disarray of all the economies involved, and the inevitable suspicions and resentments among them, the Eastern countries cannot be expected to work their way out of the Comecon sump on their own. The prospect of their doing so will almost surely prove illusory, and Gorbachev no longer seems to share or even desire it.
In another example of his ability to change position with stunning speed and effectiveness once he is convinced he has no other option, Gorbachev's agreement with Chancellor Helmut Kohl in mid-July removed all major remaining obstacles to establishing a united Germany's place in the European security structure. Basing his action on the Dublin EC summit's recommendation of aid for the Soviet Union and the just-concluded NATO summit's declaration offering "a hand" to "former adversaries," Gorbachev announced that the situation in Europe had truly changed and there was no further reason to oppose united Germany's membership in NATO. Kohl's success was made possible by the U.S.-sponsored NATO declaration. Both he and President Bush had taken great care to leave plenty of face-saving room for Moscow. It was a top-level diplomatic triple play handled with impressive skill.
Although Soviet troops will remain in their East German cantonments for three or four years, NATO's protective guarantees will cover all of the former German Democratic Republic as soon as Germany is united, an anomaly that does not seem to disturb anyone and which therefore reflects how much attitudes have changed. The common assumption now is that all will go smoothly and that worst-case scenarios are highly improbable. The Germans agreed, a little sooner than expected, to cut their eventual force totals under the forthcoming Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) agreement-and even to reduce them somewhat more than anticipated. But there were no major concessions of the Western position. The one permanent provision that could conceivably cause trouble if tensions rise again is an undertaking to ban foreign troops and nuclear weapons from former East German territory, which will leave a military dividing line when everything else marking partition has been swept away. Evidently the hope is that further arms control accords and security agreements reached under the auspices of the Helsinki-launched Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) will remove the line's importance.
Retaining troops in Germany was not a useful option for Moscow. Already there have been attacks on Soviet soldiers in East Germany, and some were reportedly disarmed to prevent any retaliation that might lead to grave incidents. Bonn will provide currency while the occupation regime winds down and contribute to housing construction in the Soviet Union so that the withdrawal can be orderly, which is in the interest of both sides. Meanwhile the Soviet Union and the East European countries will have access to the Atlantic alliance via NATO's offer to accredit their representatives in Brussels, a small sop that Moscow seized as a sign that the alliance was opening itself to Soviet concerns and was no longer purely confrontational.
The institutional importance of permanent verification procedures to be established under the CFE agreement has been overlooked. This will be a new kind of security system, with intrusive inspections providing more concrete assurance against renewed threat than any declaratory guarantees. It provides a continuing function for NATO, and in a sense for the Warsaw Pact as well, but on a mutual basis. Some East European governments have quietly told NATO officials that they look to the CFE system to assure that the Soviets will not come back, and it should help ease fears of tension among East European countries-between Hungary and Romania, for example. Limits on German forces will come under CFE, again providing a treaty-based, institutionalized, verified security measure. Both the Soviet Union and the United States are in the 23-member CFE framework, so that the CSCE is not the only East-West organization that includes them both.
The CSCE, because it is there, and because it includes everybody with a European role (except, for the time being, Albania), has borne the brunt of speculation about new European architecture. It has been called the "umbrella" for a Europe-wide system: an apt metaphor because, while an umbrella offers some protection for a group, it is not sturdy against storms and can hardly be leaned on. An argument has developed over the future relative status of the CSCE and NATO, as to whether one should be considered superior and the other subordinate. This is a false distinction that can only complicate, not ease, the transition. They need to be seen as complementary.
NATO provides the infrastructure for meshing security concerns at least among some states. It is not only the basis for keeping the United States in Europe, which British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd has repeatedly described as "essential for stability," a judgment endorsed by all alliance members and most of the East. It is the nucleus for a larger system that cannot yet be envisaged. The CSCE is so far only a forum, which can be strengthened, regularized and given additional tasks of supervision, coordination of information exchanges and possibly some kind of mediation role, but which cannot in itself provide solidity. It is a matter of the role of states. NATO is not supranational, as the European Community is becoming, but it does provide firm links among states that the CSCE cannot offer until much more has changed on the European landscape. For the time being, the CSCE is primarily a political and psychological assurance to the Soviets that they will not be shut out.
The most difficult problem in organizing the new shape of Europe is establishing the place for the Soviet Union. The more carefully one examines the possibilities, the harder the riddle looks. Whatever emerges from the new decentralizing, federalizing movement gaining momentum in the Soviet Union, however many republics may hive off, it will remain a great Euro-Asian country. The Soviets are different and will take longer to evolve into whatever their new status may be than will the East Europeans. The conclusion must be that there is no neat, unambiguous solution available in the period immediately ahead, just as there was no neat, unambiguous answer to how containment might eventually work and fulfill its purpose when George Kennan wisely proposed it as an interim guideline. Containment finally delivered on its promise because Moscow changed its policy. Overlapping, temporizing arrangements will be unavoidable in the coming years until there is another sharp turn in the path of history.
Despite the important differences now being emphasized as the bipolar international regime disintegrates, there are similarities in defining the U.S. and Soviet roles in Europe. Both nations are continental powers with important Pacific interests. Neither can be assimilated in the specifically European picture. Both require special forms of involvement that do not flow automatically from geography or history, but which are necessary to keep history evolving on the desired track of peace, accommodation and expanding well-being. And the Soviets cling to a certain idea of equivalence that eases the transition for them. America's remaining in Europe helps justify their insistence on inclusion.
An anonymous American "senior official" has been quoted as saying that the United States wants to remain "a power" in Europe with the right of decision, not just "a presence" with only observer status. This is a self-confusing way of putting the question of the future American role. Obviously, as the military dimension loses prime significance in European affairs, the U.S. power of prime decision wanes. Nor was it ever unlimited; there always had to be accommodation to European views. Obviously, as European economic power is reinforced in consolidation, U.S. economic power loses the capacity for domination. But it will remain a key factor. And there continues to be an important U.S. catalytic capacity among the Europeans, who still have a long way to go before they can act as a political unit. They need and-although there will always be some grumbles-appreciate the outside influence of the United States when strains develop among them.
The fact that Chancellor Kohl took the lead in making the final German settlement with Moscow provoked some disgruntled complaints that the Germans had seized command in Europe-and even comparisons with Rapallo and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Some Americans, along with Europeans, mumbled, "Who's in charge now?" But the agreement had been prepared with American consultation at key points, and it would have been churlish to appear to make the Germans take a back seat in negotiations restoring their full sovereignty. Top German officials say the Soviets appreciate the warm Bonn-Washington relation now as a buttress to their effort to keep the Moscow-Washington relation in good condition as they pull back from Europe.
German-bashing is probably going to be inevitable, at least in the period of uncertainty before the new shape of Europe has clearly jelled. How Bonn, or perhaps later Berlin, uses its economic and political weight will make an important difference to its neighbors' perceptions. Moreover Germany is not the only country with a role to play in developing the Eastern economies and establishing a West European presence. Poland certainly, and other Eastern countries as well, are keen to see France, Britain, the United States, Japan and other economic powers become active in Eastern Europe, so as not to leave the region too dependent on German businessmen and bankers.
Politically, at least, Britain could have established a much larger role in the emerging Europe if Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had chosen to fill the vacuum in EC leadership during the doldrums the continent experienced in much of the 1980s. But that chance is gone, probably for good, and it is now only through the vitality of institutions such as the EC, NATO and the CSCE that Germany's preeminence can be diffused once the challenges of reunification are met.
The Poles are now satisfied with arrangements for settling the Oder-Neisse border, and they look toward another treaty of general reconciliation and cooperation with Germany. So do the Soviets. Thus the main guidelines for the transition period have been set in place, much more quickly than seemed possible late last year. The EC, NATO and the CSCE, with their interlocking memberships, plus the weapons- and deployment-verification regimes that should gradually transform the European security structure, will be the pillars.
Whether these institutions will actually function as envisaged is, of course, impossible to predict. It depends on what happens within the countries concerned, on their capacity to use new opportunities for development of political stability as well as of their economies, on the unforeseeable in the world at large. But it is the beginning of a coherent program to bring in the East without disorganizing the West.
Some suggestions have been made for a new institutional framework for U.S. engagement in Europe. Secretary of State James A. Baker has spoken of some kind of treaty link to the European Community, instinctively interpreted by the French as a demand for a "thirteenth seat" at the Community's table. Others have spoken of giving the EC, presumably through its Commission, a membership seat in NATO. Neither step would be fruitful, nor necessary to maintain U.S. involvement. It is better to make sure that NATO remains relevant by renewing its structure and stressing its unique contribution to mutual security. The coming arms control regimes, including an eventual Open Skies accord, imply long-term U.S. engagement.
Japan has signaled a new interest in finding a geopolitical role to match its economic weight, which has led some to urge a new U.S.-Japanese-German (though they should say European) directorate of world affairs. This is narrow thinking, tinkering with old patterns, which would resolve neither the problems of bringing in the East nor of defining the U.S. role. But the United States, as an Atlantic-Pacific and American hemispheric power, does have an important function to perform in preventing the coalescence of new, exclusive blocs. To do that, it must remain engaged on both sides, and no other country can serve that purpose effectively.
The change ahead for the United States appears dramatic only if the myth of American empire is taken seriously. There never was a capacity to dictate, but now the capacity to influence is going to require more stress on partnership and less on demonstrating lonely "Number One" status. There should be nothing to regret in the ability and willingness of Europeans to take on a larger share of the responsibility for organizing the safety and prosperity of their continent. The task will remain a joint one, because the Europeans need the United States, and the Americans need European partners, in bringing the world into a new and more hopeful era.