"We've come to love the bomb, so to say."
Standing alone, those words could get a European politician or diplomat in a heap of trouble. But they fit sensibly enough in the context of what the British ambassador in Washington, Sir Oliver Wright, was seeking to explain in a speech here the other day entitled "The NATO Alliance: A European View." The occasion was the 25th annual Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference (NAFAC), and the ambassador was making a point of more than passing interest as President Reagan gears up for his European tour in early May.
He was talking about the difference between Europeans' view of the world in general, and of the Soviet Union in particular, and that of most Americans. Having experienced conventional war in a way that Americans have not, he argued, most, if by no means all, Europeans have a certain grim confidence in the deterrence of conventional war by the threat of nuclear retaliation.
Left by geography with no alternative, Sir Oliver argues, Europeans have also adopted over the years a distinctively less apocalyptic way of thinking and talking about the threat to their neighborhood than the Reagan administration conveys when it speaks of the comparatively minuscule Soviet presence in Cuba and Nicaragua.
The contrast was made all the more vivid by the character of the conference, a unique event put on largely by the midshipmen for their benefit and that of some 200 invitees from 140 other schools and universities across the country. They were a diverse, intelligent lot, engaging in intense and well-informed roundtable debate.
But, Sir Oliver aside, the rest of what was served up was hardly what you would call a balanced diet for hungry young minds. Vice Adm. John M. Poindexter, deputy assistant to the president for national security affairs, opened things up with the White House line. "World War III has already begun," he warned, "in the form of state-supported terrorism." He urged the students to think deeply about how to fulfill our "moral obligation to support freedom fighters."
The keynote address was delivered by newly Republican Jeane Kirkpatrick, the former ambassador to the United Nations. For an hour, she belabored the Nicaraguan case. But she paled by comparison with President John R. Silber of Boston University whose Democratic Party affiliation was supposed to give bipartisan coloration to the Kissinger Commission on Central America. Rattling the dominoes until you had to wonder whether we would all live out the night, he cited a weak and unreliable Mexico as the final domino, and tossed out an estimate of between $50 billion and $100 billion as the cost of defending our southern border (at the expense of NATO and the rest of the world) if we fail to support the Nicaraguan contras.
At the end, you had to wonder which was the superpower, the defender of Western security, cool, confident and in command, and which was the once-great empire, now living with its continental NATO companions under the guns of the Warsaw Pact. The United States or Britain? Sir Oliver tried to straighten it out: "You are our friendly neighborhood superpower. Thank God for America, say I."
But the ambassador gently questioned whether most Americans understand Western Europe any better than they understand the Soviet Union. Acknowledging the potential power of European peace movements, he noted that the European allies are nonetheless deploying intermediate-range nuclear missiles on schedule. Tackling the "burden-sharing" issue head on, he argued that Europe provides 90 percent of the ground forces, 90 percent of the armored divisions, 80 percent f the combat aircraft and 80 percent of the tanks defending the central front. He sees this as "the front line of the free world," and the world's "most dangerous" area because it contains the "greatest concentration of lethal weapons anywhere."
The Europeans, he insisted, are well aware of the Soviet Union's excessive military strength, aggressive policy and dark, worldwide designs. "It is our business to match its strength and frustrate its objectives." But he found it possible to take some comfort in Soviet weaknesses: economic, ideological, systemic.
If the Soviets are undeniably "imperialistic and aggressive," they also come across to those who have lived alongside of them for centuries as cautious, defensive, possessed of a "siege mentality based on repeated invasions." Sir Oliver urged Americans to take some of these contradictons into account.
You don't have to buy all of this to understand the European perception of the Soviet mind-set. In a certain sense, the Europeans have the best seats in the house.