Thirteen NATO defense ministers resolved today to station new nuclear missiles in Europe this year, handing Washington the endorsement it said was needed to put pressure on the Soviet Union at the Geneva negotiations.
The critical language in a joint comminque, signed by all but one of the 14 members of the NATO military alliance and issued after a two-day strategy meeting here, had been sought by U.S. Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger as a gesture of NATO solidarity as deployment dates approach for the 572 Pershing II and cruise missiles.
Greece, in keeping with a policy set by Socialist Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, did not sign the pledge, although it signed the rest of the communique. Denmark added a reservation, noting a motion passed by its parliament saying it would drop support for the new missiles if no arms-reduction pact is signed at Geneva this year.
Given the fears over a breach in the NATO position, U.S. officials and their allies spent much of the past two days trying to work out a compromise on the Danish position, or the "Danish footnote," as it came to be called.
The ministers' problem was a recent vote by the Danish parliament against immediate deployment. After telephone calls to Copenhagen and closed-door lectures from Weinberger and the British and West German representatives, the Danes agreed to a final communique everyone could live with.
But the energy devoted to a resolution of one Scandinavian parliament reflected the fragility of the political coalition supporting the missiles as well as U.S. determination to avoid any cracks in Western solidarity, even among small nations that are not involved in the deployment.
Questions of perception have dominated the four-year-old debate on European missiles, and Weinberger has spent much of his trip this week to West Germany, Belgium and Norway dealing with those questions as the missile debate comes to a climax.
The debate has been governed from the start by political as much as military considerations, as NATO sought to threaten from European soil Soviet targets, some of which are already targeted by U.S. missiles at home and on submarines. As the December deployment date approaches and opposition intensifies in many European countries, the politics have become more complex.
As a result, Weinberger found himself pressed at every stop by European reporters examining every nuance and possible new twist in the missile debate. At times he and his aides were backed into difficult positions.
Weinberger and his deputies found themselves proclaiming their determination both to deploy the missiles and to negotiate their reduction.
Similarly, they argued that the 572 cruise and Pershing II missiles, which could reach the Soviet Union, are a crucial response to Soviet SS20s now aimed at Western Europe. They belittled as "absurd on its face," in the words of Assistant Secretary Richard Perle, the Soviet claim that the Pershings represent "a new and formidable threat."
Perle was drawn into the perception war when the Boston Globe reported this morning that Perle had said the political cost of keeping the allies united in support of the missiles outweighed their military value. Perle labeled the story "substantially incorrect."
In Washington, officials said Perle's reported comments had "a ring of truth." However, they also noted that the deployment decision has always had a military rationale in terms of keeping Europe "coupled" to the U.S. nuclear umbrella and upgrading aging U.S. weapons.
Weinberger got caught in another flap this week, this one over the significance of the Soviet threat last week to install nuclear missiles in Warsaw Pact countries if NATO went forward with its missile-basing plans in West Germany, Britain, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands.
Although Western leaders initially condemned the threat heatedly, Weinberger downplayed it several times during his trip to Europe--to the apparent astonishment of European reporters. He said the Soviets for years had shuttled nuclear-capable missiles with ranges of 500 miles or more in and out of Eastern Europe. The Soviets, he said, were threatening something they had accomplished already.
The Soviets have had nuclear-capable surface-to-surface missiles, known as the Frog and the Scud, in Eastern Europe for many years. Whether the atomic warheads for those missiles are also in Eastern Europe is not clear, U.S. officials said.
Western analysts also have known for some time that the Soviets are in the process of modernizing their older missile force. According to the Pentagon's "Soviet Military Power" book issued last March, the 80-mile range SS21 is replacing the Frog 7; the 300-mile range SS23 is replacing the Scud, and the 800-mile range SS22 is replacing the older Scaleboard SS12 missile.
According to officials in Washington, however, neither the SS22s nor the SS23s have been deployed in Eastern Europe yet and it is also not clear whether SS21s are actually in place.
Whether the SS21, SS22 and SS23 will be dealt with in the Geneva talks is still unclear.
The United States has taken the position that these missiles should be dealt with under the "noncircumvention" clause, which is intended to prevent Moscow from getting around any negotiated limitations on the longer range SS20 missiles by moving shorter range missiles closer to the West.