The Reagan adminsitration's decision to at least explore the possibility of negotiations to limit intermediate-range nuclear weapons deployed in Europe has eased for now the tensions that had been building between the United States and the European members of NATO. These problems, which have come and gone over the years, will not be resolved by this expedient, however. There is a fundamental, if unarticulated, difference in the ways we and the Europeans look at the linked problems of avoiding war and protecting our nations' security.
Americans tend to view a decision to go to war as a deliberate move resulting from a cold calculation of relative advantage and disadvantage. Consequently, we strive to deter war by maintaining armed forces at least comparable, and preferably superior, to those of the Soviet Union. Given superior Western military capabilities, we maintain, Soviet leaders would not initiate war because they would calculate that any such move would result in defeat. Some Americans carry this rationalistic perspective so far as to argue that any marginal advantage presented to the Soviet Union, such as potential to destroy our land-based missiles in a first strike, could change this calculation and induce Soviet leaders, in extremis, to initiate war.
Europeans, on the other hand, see the risk of war as immune to calculations of relative outcomes. To them, war is more likely the result of events getting out of hand. Living in the shadow of Soviet military power and the memory of World War II, they seek primarily to establish political and economic relations such that situations in which Soviet leaders might seriously contemplate war would not arise. Failing that, they seek to prevent war's outbreak by making its likely cost appear as high as possible. To do this, they seek to make evident that any conflict in Europe would likely escalate to a central nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union. Note that they are not concerned with projections of the relative outcomes of a war; to Europeans, the way to deter war is to avoid situations in which it becomes "thinkable," and to make clear just how great its absolute cost could be.
Which perspective is correct? I have to agree with the Europeans. Not that the initiation of war is never a deliberatly calculated act: when Israel preempted against gathering Arab armies in 1967, it correctly calculated the relative risks of action and inaction, as did President Sadat of Egypt when he initiated the 1973 war to put himself in a political position to reach a settlement with Israel.
But in the context of U.S.-Soviet confrontation, no person acting rationally could see advantage in beginning war. Regardless of projections of relative outcomes at intermediate levels of escalation, the potential ultimate risk -- the utter devastation of our societies -- clearly outweighs any uncertain calculation of marginal and relative gain. So long as each of the superpowers deploys thousands of nuclear weapons, assessments of this ultimate risk are not likely to change. If war should come, it would not be the result of cold calculations about the relative advantages; it would be the result of events and emotions out of control.
How then do we avoid war? The answer is not politically satisfying, as in involves a policy of both sticks and carrots, which is difficult to explain to the electorate. Yes, the West should stand up to the Russians when they violate acceptable codes of behavior. They should be made to pay a price for acts like the occupation of Afghanistan. Yes, the United States should maintain sufficient conventional strength in Europe, and adequate theater nuclear forces, and an adequate strategic balance so that American presidents have options if situations begin to escalate and so that the risk of confrontation is not trival. But also, as the Europeans suggest, we should hold on to a dialogue with the Russians. Western leaders should avoid gratutous insults and intemperate remarks that only poison the atmosphere. We should not fear to enter into negotiations on mutual limits on nuclear weapons and ways to stabilize the military balance in Europe. We should be willing to reach economic agreements that give the Russians a stake in a stable international system.
It is not inconsistent to punish some kinds of Soviet behavior while rewarding others. No more inconsistent than risking nuclear war to protect the nation's security.