West Germany's Defense Minister Manfred Woerner, stressing that Bonn's new conservative government places its highest priority on improved ties with U.S. and European allies, yesterday endorsed NATO plans to deploy Pershing II and cruise nuclear missiles in Europe as a way "to prove to the Soviets that if they attack us, they risk parts of their own homeland."
At a breakfast meeting with editors and reporters of The Washington Post, Woerner said the 572 medium-range nuclear missiles, scheduled to be installed in five West European nations starting in December 1983 if arms control talks in Geneva fail, would help to reinforce faith in the U.S. commitment to defend Europe from Soviet aggression.
A strong reaffirmation of NATO's resolve to deploy the missiles, Woerner said, would convince Moscow of the need to make concessions in the Geneva negotiations.
"They have to move first," he insisted. "They have over 300 [SS20 missile] systems and we have none."
While declining to speculate on the nature of a compromise, Woerner said he expects the Soviets to initiate progress in the moribund arms control sessions only if West German elections scheduled for next March produce a government firmly committed to deploying Pershing II and cruise missiles.
The likelihood of Soviet efforts to encourage domestic protests over the missile issue was "one of the decisive reasons" that Chancellor Helmut Kohl has sought elections next March instead of waiting until autumn 1984.
Woerner said Kohl hopes to secure a mandate from the voters to contend with Soviet propaganda pressures "that have already started and will increase" as the deployment date draws near.
Even though the opposition Social Democrats embraced NATO strategy under former chancellor Helmut Schmidt to link the missile deployment to the arms control talks, many analysts believe that left-wing elements could succeed in persuading the party to disavow deployment altogether now that Schmidt has renounced plans to run again for chancellor.
Woerner fears that the "gap in West German political camps may widen as the Social Democrats seek to move left to win new votes" for the March election.
"Until now we have had two parties grouped to the left and right of center," he said. "To seek what some call a potential new majority, the Social Democrats may be forced to drift more to the left than is good for democracy. This could create an uncomfortable situation."
Under 13 years of Social Democratic rule, U.S.-German relations "deteriorated because of distrust and a suspicion that we were sliding away from the alliance" in favor of "a rhetoric of equidistance and neutralist attitudes," Woerner contended.
Kohl's center-right coalition, he said, intends to show "more reliability as an ally, that we are capable of doing what we say."
Woerner said that the Kohl government would also put an end to the ambiguity on defense issues that resulted from the bitter divisions within the Social Democrats when they were in power.
"No citizen who votes for us may be uncertain as to what we will do," Woerner claimed. "We will deploy the missiles if the arms control talks fail. There can be no doubt about our position."
As defense minister, Woerner said he plans to bolster manpower, training and leadership capabilities and to "strengthen conventional contributions to NATO to make use of modern technologies." He added that the new government planned no cuts in defense spending this year despite economic pressures to impose a relatively austere budget.
"I agree that we need a flexible response," he said. "I don't foresee that we can renounce nuclear arms and replace them by conventional means, but we can raise the nuclear threshold," he said.
In his talks with Vice President George Bush Monday, Woerner said he was pleased to hear that the administration prefers to follow a moderate line, meaning "not to overarm yet not allow the Soviets to gain superiority."
Bush struck a reassuring note, he said, by rejecting any notion that the administration contemplated fighting a limited nuclear war.
The West German minister also said Bush "made it very clear that administration policy is to continue arms control negotiations on a broad scale and to make them a success."
Woerner also visited Capitol Hill, as he usually does on his frequent visits to Washington, to talk with senators who monitor security matters.
Woerner indicated that beyond the missile question and arms control talks, a major Allied challenge is finding a consensus for the most effective conceptual approach toward dealing with the Soviet Union.
"We cannot force them to their knees," he said. "We can influence the Soviet Union only if we do it in an elegant, flexible manner and not with hammer blows."
Woerner said the aging Soviet leaders are not belligerent aggressors primed for global warfare.
"These old men are not risk takers; on the contrary, they are risk calculators," he said. "If they can escape war, they will try to do so."
At the same time, Woerner emphasized, "We cannot tolerate how they treat Solidarity or how they violate the Helsinki accords. We cannot accept this as normal otherwise we lose any possibility of binding them to obligations they have made."