As Vice President George Bush is packing his bags to win back the hearts and minds of Europeans wooed by recent Soviet peace initiatives, a few travel hints may be of use to him before he enters the territory of the European tribes.
First, the natives can no longer be won by beads and fire water. European public opinion is influenced by Soviet propaganda, not least because people would like to think that there may be some serious offer behind the many "peace initiatives." But they will resent a Western response that consists merely of counter-propaganda.
Quite rightly, Europeans measure Soviet initiatives and Western responses by different yardsticks; even if they may not always be very skillful in recognizing Soviet propaganda for what it is, they are quite astute in detecting gimmickry in the policies of their own governments. Bush should, therefore, resist the temptation to regard his trip merely as a public relations exercise. In order to convince public opinion in Europe, he will have to do more than just react to Soviet proposals.
Second, he should concentrate on essentials. There may be a real temptation to pretend that there is already a coherent U.S. approach to nuclear arms control, not least in order to overcome the adverse image created by the Washington infighting during the past weeks and days. But that infighting is not going to disappear as a result of a few vice presidential speeches; it is probably in the nature of the American decision-making process.
Little headway could be made with European public opinion if the vice president were to present a coherent strategy on Jan. 31, only to be contradicted by an intentional leak from Washington on Feb. 1. Europeans have learned from experience that the way American administrations produce policy is very different from their own; it is not this which worries them most. Rather, there is concern over the underlyng philosophy.
The Reagan administration's apparent fascination with nuclear weapons as a means of warfare has undermined public acceptance of nuclear weapons as a means of deterrence. As a result, arms control has lost its image as the regulator of nuclear competition and has instead become-- in the eyes of many who feel rather than analyze--the last hope for preventing the rapid slide toward nuclear disaster.
The quibbling in Washington over this or that detail, over the responsibility of this or that government agency, then appears no longer as an inevitable stage in the process through which the U.S. government makes up its mind, but as a manifest example of frivolity.
The vice president should, therefore, try to address these deeper concerns by stating unambiguously that the United States is committed to a strategy of deterrence only; that it does not believe in limited nuclear war; that it does not aspire to nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union; and that it seriously seeks stability and dialogue, not confrontation, with the other superpower.
Third, Bush would want to bring along a sense for the underlying economic causes of European anxieties. It is true that the nuclear issue dominates the surface of public concerns, but it covers a deeper malaise, that over the economic future of Western societies. Living with nuclear deterrence depends essentially on confidence in the cohesion of the Western alliance. A program for economic recovery in the West would also be a major step toward regenerating this confidence. While it would not make the nuclear fears disappear, it would at least put them in perspective.
The European mood at the moment is confused and uncertain. There will, no doubt, be new and imaginative Soviet initiatives to exploit this state of affairs.
European politicians will have to bear the primary responsibility for convincing their citizens of the continued relevance of the alliance with the United States, and there would be no harm in reminding them of this again. But Bush could at least offer them a strong backing in this effort. If he is successful, the details of arms control that so agitate the European public debate at the moment will become what they should be: matters not of principle but of practical consideration. If he fails, the principles of deterrence and of alliance themselves will be further eroded.