A Challenge for the Future: East-West Relations and Arms Control

West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl with East German President Hans Modrow and the mayors of East and West Berlin at the opening of the Brandenburg Gate in December 1989.

West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl with East German President Hans Modrow and the mayors of East and West Berlin at the opening of the Brandenburg Gate in December 1989. Photo from the US Department of Defense.

This article was originally published in the May 1989 issue of the Harvard International Review.

At the end of the 1980s, East-West relations are characterized by dynamic forward movement. High and top-level meetings have intensified remarkably. The US-Soviet summit meetings, my own visit to Moscow, and the visits by the Italian prime minister and the French president to the Soviet Union are indicators of this trend.

The prospects for East-West negotiations have increased. Similarly, the quest for new forms of cooperation is producing results in many areas. And in the East, too, there is a growing realization that cooperation offers far more advantages than continuing confrontation.

The new trend is not without risks, of course. They results partly from the still-remaining differences in the systems, the different sets of values, the continuing disparities in political power between East and West, and the military superiority of the Soviet Union, especially where conventional forces are concerned.

But the difficulty of making a reliable assessment of future development also lies in the huge challenges facing the world as a whole: coping with the rapid technological transformation and the social, economic, and political changes related to it in the developed regions; dealing with the economic stagnation, overpopulation, poverty, and underdevelopment in large parts of the third world; and addressing worldwide damage to the environment and the irreversible consumption of natural resources.

The East-West relationship will be increasingly seen as an integral part of this wider global framework. Several, in some cases alarming, trends place a mutual obligation on the leaderships of East and West, on the path into the 21st century, to put an end to all forms of confrontation and to effectively pool their energies and abilities in their own and in the global interest.

Thus lasting stability in East-West relations, based on cooperation and the reconciling of interests in all fields, including security, is the dictate of the future. Thinking in terms of international class struggle and aspiring to supremacy, no matter what form it takes, must be a thing of the past. The statements by the Soviet leadership under General Secretary Gorbachev heralding a new foreign and security policy give us reason to hope, but they must continue to be borne out by deeds.

In this context I would like to underline that I welcome the reduction of conventional Soviet armed forces announced by General Secretary Gorbachev at the United Nations on December 7, 1988, in particular the withdrawal and disbandment of tank units in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary by 1991. It is an important step in the right direction.

Recent years in particular have shown how many opportunities have been wasted as a result of the East’s miscalculations and its conflict-oriented strategy. And experience tells us that we in the West have always fared best when we have stuck to our common foreign and security policy concepts, which have combined the sober preservation of Western defensive capabilities with a policy of dialogue and cooperation with the East. Here are two examples which illustrate this point: today it is obvious that without NATO’s two-track decision of 1979 and its implementation in 1983—that is by deploying US intermediate range ballistic and cruise missiles—the disarmament process would hardly have produced such substantial results. Under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which entered into force in 1988, a whole class of nuclear weapons is to be eliminated for the first time on a global scale. My government played a major part in bringing about that treaty and this has been acknowledged by both the United States and the Soviet Union. That treaty can serve as a model for other disarmament agreements in that it embodies the principles of asymmetrical reductions and extensive verification.

Another example which illustrates how opportunities can be used in difficult times is the Stockholm Conference on Confidence- and Security-Building Measures and Disarmament in Europe, which was brought to a successful conclusion in September 1986. That conference represents a breakthrough with regard to the concept of on-site inspection and verification. Those who did not subscribe to, but instead tried to counter confrontational trends in East-West relations were able to point to confidence-building measures that by far surpassed the Helsinki final act.

Both examples prove the present validity of the Harmel Report of 1967, which states: “The Atlantic Alliance has two main functions. Its first function is to maintain adequate military strength and political solidarity to deter aggression and other forms of pressure and to defend the territory of member countries if aggression should occur…In this climate (of stability, security, and trust) the Alliance can carry out its second function, i.e. to pursue the search for progress towards a more stable relationship in which the underlying political issues can be solved. Military security and the policy of détente are not contradictory but complementary.”

That was a forward-looking program. With it, the Alliance confirmed its cohesion and unanimity by tracing a comprehensive policy towards Eastern Europe, which deliberately kept open the door for improvements in East-West relations. Developments in that relationship since then have proved, and are still proving, how important it is for the West to keep on intensifying bilateral and multilateral consultations on the central issues of arms control and disarmament and on the East-West relationship overall.

I wish to take this opportunity to expressly thank President Reagan for his excellent cooperation, his understanding for our concerns, and his readiness for close coordination within the Alliance in connection with the INF negotiations, but also in the comprehensive Western process of coordinating positions on all issues relating to the Vienna CSCE follow-up meeting, in the deliberations of the High-Level Task Force in preparation for Negotiations on Conventional Armed Forces, and within the scope of intra-Alliance briefings on the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) negotiations.

I myself have always considered the various top-level consultations as the most appropriate means of shaping allied policy and coordinating positions and interests. This will remain unchanged. From a European point of view, the growing intensity of the transatlantic dialogue not only reflects Europe’s rising status but is also a manifestation of the solidarity, mutual interests, and parity of the West as a whole. This was impressively reaffirmed at the last NATO summit meeting in Brussels at the beginning of March 1988. The dialogue also testifies to the fact that the Alliance’s creative energy and cohesion have always been enhanced when each member has kept the common interest in mind and the Alliance as a whole has respected the interests of every member. That is the true meaning of solidarity.

In an alliance of free states it is only natural that differing interests are sometimes hard to reconcile. From time to time there has been a tendency in public to place more emphasis on differences than on what we have in common; this I have always considered wrong. In the light of this experience we must strive to act in unison in the years ahead when the Alliance will be faced with exceptional challenges.

The main challenges confronting the Alliance concern relations with Eastern Europe, arms control, and the Alliance’s internal problems. All are interwoven with the new trends in East-West relations and increasingly demand new, forward-looking solutions. Here I will outline a few of them.

A Peaceful Order in Europe

It remains one of the foremost objectives of Western policy to establish a peaceful order in Europe, as already called for in the Harmel Report of 1967—an order in which nations can live together in peaceful competition and not in mutual fear. Both East and West have a responsible role to play on the road to such a European future.

The conceptual framework for a Western policy geared to that objective, as explained in the Harmel Report, has unquestionably stood the test of time. It must therefore remain the basis for a dynamic, adaptable, balanced, and credible Alliance policy.

The Alliance needs to make a sober and open-minded assessment of the possibilities for a general improvement in East-West relations emerging from the Soviet policy of reform. Based on that assessment, the Alliance should also continue to develop its flexible concept for cooperation with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

On the basis of that concept the Western Alliance, whilst allowing for the risks that still exist and protecting our common interests, should courageously seize the opportunities for dialogue and cooperation with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in as many areas as possible, that is, not only security but also trade, culture, science, and, above all, human rights.

Controlled Disarmament

But the new developments in the East-West relationship mean that the Alliance is more than ever obliged by the Western public to convincingly justify its defense requirements. As always, our main concern is to guarantee our security at every step in the disarmament process. Our strategy of flexible response must be upheld in the future, and its implementation—should the necessity arise—secured by a suitable mix of adequate and effective nuclear and conventional forces. This, of course, means that US forces in Europe will remain a cornerstone of Western defense. More generally speaking, on the one hand, we must not close our eyes to the real size of Warsaw Pact military forces and their constant modernization, nor to the fact that in the future too the differences between East and West can lead to disputes and conflicts. On the other hand, in the light of genuine improvements in East-West relations, especially in the field of arms control, we must also be prepared to review our defense capabilities and reduce them to the level necessary for Western security.

In the new phase of East-West relations that lies ahead our aim must be to advance the following Western arms control programs outlined by NATO foreign ministers in Reykjavik in the summer of 1987 and confirmed at the NATO summit at the beginning of March 1988. The 50 percent reduction of the strategic nuclear offensive weapons of the US and the Soviet Union through START negotiation; the global elimination of chemical weapons through the Geneva negotiations—the recent Paris conference has generated new momentum here; the establishment of a stable and secure level of conventional forces, by the elimination of disparities, in the whole of Europe; and in conjunction with the establishment of a conventional balance and the global elimination of chemical weapons—tangible and verifiable reductions of American and Soviet land-based nuclear missile systems of shorter range, leading to equal ceilings.

On December 8, 1988, the NATO foreign ministers presented the Alliance’s proposal for the Negotiations on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, which will start in March of this year. The proposal envisages, for example, a reduction of those weapon systems, such as tanks and artillery, which are threatening stability in Europe the most by their capability for large-scale offensive operations and occupation of territory; a limitation in the sense that for each category of equipment no country should be allowed more than a certain percentage of the total of all 23 states participating in the negotiations; and a limitation of armed forces stationed in the territory of other countries.

The opening of these negotiations is now possible due to the successful conclusion of the CSCE follow-up meeting in Vienna—another important step forward in East-West relations.

Burden-Sharing Within the Alliance

The dynamics of East-West relations will also have implications of the equitable distribution of roles, risks, and responsibilities within the Alliance. My government and its European partners in the Alliance are fully aware of the great importance of this question. In the burden-sharing debate currently taking place in the United States, the European contribution is seen very much in quantitative and budgetary terms. But form the German and European point of view, geostrategic factors and non-material contributions must also be taken into account. As far as my country is concerned, I would mention the heavy concentration of German and foreign forces—a total of about 900,000 men and their weapons in an area equal to that of the state of Oregon—resulting in high numbers of military exercises, including low-level flying.

Alliance solidarity presupposes a readiness for compromise on both sides of the Atlantic. It must always be borne in mind that the discussion of this problem should eventually strengthen, not weaken, the Alliance.

At this juncture I wish to mention one aspect which receives great attention in the United States, and understandably so: the deployment of NATO forces outside the NATO area. We Europeans appreciate the problem and do not shirk our responsibility; we showed this when member states of the Western European Union supported efforts to protect shipping in the Persian Gulf, whether by sending naval units to the Gulf or—as in the case of Germany—having our navy take over certain US responsibilities in the Mediterranean. Our contribution was based upon the established, traditional understanding of our constitution, namely that the military deployment of Bundeswehr forces outside the NATO area is not permissible.

Trans-Atlantic Partnership

Our efforts to strengthen the European pillar of the Alliance also have a considerable bearing on the question of equitable burden-sharing. With these efforts the Europeans are taking account of the fact that both the receding validity of Great Power dualism and new trends in the world economy over recent decades have implications for our security. Thus, the revival of the Western European Union, as well as of Franco-German cooperation in security and defense matters, are intended to enhance Alliance solidarity and trans-Atlantic partnership.

In pursuing this course, the Europeans realize that overall strategic stability, and ultimately European security, will continue to depend on the United States’ counterweight to Soviet continental power. The presence of US forces in Europe and the nuclear shield of the United States cannot be replaced by independent European security systems; both remain indispensable.

Thus a unilateral reduction of US forces in Europe would send a false signal to the other side. Neither budgetary problems nor differences over equitable burden sharing within the Alliance could justify such as a drastic step. In this respect, it is important to remain aware of the Alliance’s overriding common interest and, at the same time, not to forget that this is in the United States’ interest, too.

Unbreakable Partnership

As far as we Germans are concerned, the bonds between Western Europe and the United States, which have been forged by common values and a common destiny, will at no time, however distant, become negotiable. They will remain a constant, indispensable factor, especially in the process of molding forward-looking East-West relations.

The magnitude of the challenges that lie ahead requires not only a levelheaded approach but also the initiative and courage to jointly avail ourselves of the opportunities that are unfolding. If the Alliance does not maintain its cohesion it will play into the hands of those who aim to split it or at least to undermine its solidarity, and, for various reasons, wish to encourage drastic reductions of the US presence in Western Europe. That would serve to increase Soviet influence in Europe and at the same time cause a serious shift of global power, which would neither be in European nor US interest since Europe’s freedom is the United States’ freedom, and vice-versa. Past experience should be our guidance for the future.

About Author

Helmut Kohl

Helmut Kohl served as Chancellor of West Germany from 1982 to 1990, and as Chancellor of the united Federal Republic of Germany from 1990 to 1998. At the time, Kohl was the longest-serving Chancellor of Germany since Otto von Bismarck.