Security: What Dare Europeans Hope For?

By Metta Spencer

IT'S BEEN MORE THAN A YEAR since the Europeans were in the streets by the millions, waving banners and chanting, proudly defying water cannon and tear gas to proclaim their refusal of cruise and Pershing missiles. Now many of the missiles are in their appointed places, with shiny nose cones facing eastward, and street life is normal again. The peace movement's not over. Far from it. But it is in a different phase.

Social movements flourish when a simple, understandable issue emerges -- one seemingly calling for a choice between black and white, good and evil. And to the activists who oppose their deployment, the missiles were not just a symbol of evil, but a physical embodiment of evil. Never before on earth has anti-life been so concentrated as in the compact little warheads which the Americans and Russians proposed to fix in various scenic parts of Europe. This year their deployment is proceeding virtually on schedule, and although it will not be a fait accompli for several years yet, the peace marchers know that their methods have failed. Their shouts and banners have not halted the death machines. And so activists now recognize their responsibility as more complex than merely calling for mass demonstrations. They must turn political. Brief though humanity's likely future seems to be, they must plan long-term campaigns. And no longer are their options simple enough to bring a million people onto the streets shouting slogans. They, like Canadian peace activists, are uncertain whether to promote long-range, ambitious goals or more limited 'realistic' ones. They are not even sure what is realistic.

This uncertainty was particularly apparent at a conference in Belgium in March. Some 175 European delegates gathered to consider their continent's prospects. They were NATO generals and ambassadors, parliamentarians, academics, labor leaders, peace organizers and researchers, and specialists on inter national law. Most striking was the inconsistency among many of the delegates' opinions. For example, the Europeans -- including the peace leaders -- were averse to the idea of quitting NATO. Even some of the Communist delegates claimed that the alliance was a necessary stabilizing factor. The parliamentarians were keenly aware that three quarters of the voters distrust the Soviets and want some form of collective defence scheme. They seemed astonished to hear that substantial numbers of Canadians, including an important party, favor quitting or dissolving NATO.

On the other hand, they are also aware of the dangers that are incurred for the sake of the present 'security' strategies, and they manifest as much visionary thinking as they do fatalistic 'realism.' For example, one of the main topics of the conference was a proposal for not only a nuclear weapon free zone but even a substantially demilitarized zone comprising 30 European countries. (Sec the April issue of Peace Magazine for a review of this scheme -- the De Smaele plan .)

Some of the people who had expressed shock at the idea of quitting NATO were also ready to endorse the Security Zone proposal. This is contradictory. Some of them had worried aloud about the possibility that the Soviets might use "nuclear blackmail" on them if the Americans' bombs were removed -- yet if they had misgivings about the De Smaele proposal, they were not expressed. Every speaker tried to outdo the others in praising it. Seemingly, all that remained was to bring it down to brass tacks and figure out how to effect a plan that enjoyed such unanimous support.

But no one moved into the stage of practical planning. Basic considerations were not addressed: No one questioned the verifiability of the scheme. No skeptic observed that the various nations might cling to the 'security' of their conventional forces. No one wondered aloud whether the nuclear nations would respect the zone by sending their missiles around Europe instead of over it. No one mentioned recruiting a senior diplomat to travel around promoting such a scheme.

Troubled by the pie-in-the-sky status of the Security Zone, I proposed that the verification and security problems be addressed by establishing an international peacekeeping and verification force (as advocated by Canadians Arnold Simoni and Norman Alcock) and suggested that the group focus attention on other practical considerations as well. A Danish parliamentarian responded by admitting that perhaps the scheme was unrealistic for Europe as a whole. It is not unrealistic for the Nordic countries, he added quickly, since there are already no nuclear weapons there. But could we imagine for one moment that Mrs. Thatcher and Mr. Reagan would allow such a demilitarization to take place? Hardly! Suddenly I felt ashamed: I'd inadvertently damaged a vision they had all been enjoying by suggesting it was illusory.

But actually, the larger scheme may not be as unrealistic as the Danish parliamentarian conceded. For one thing, the Soviet delegate had been as positive about the idea as the Western delegates. Of course it is nothing new for the Soviets to promote the idea of nuclear weapon free zones.

However, the De Smaele proposal was more extensive than that: It envisioned a great reduction in conventional weapons as well, and for countries of both blocs. Would the Soviets really consider withdrawing troops from their Eastern European 'allies' and risk the uprisings that would certainly follow in those countries?

And if the Soviets would accept a demilitarized zone, surely the motivation would be eroded for several ambivalent NATO countries to stay in the western alliance. Belgium and the Netherlands, for example, would not so willingly accept cruise missiles if they did not take seriously the possibility of Russian aggression -- a concern that would surely be assuaged by the demilitarization of Warsaw Pact countries.

There is a second reason for mild optimism about the long-term prospects of a demilitarized Europe -- and that, paradoxically, is the "Star Wars" scheme. There is not much to celebrate about this dangerous, expensive, and improbable technological program, but there is this much: It will probably wreck NATO, if the United States sticks to its plans. If the Americans come to rely on the "Star Wars" gadgetry, it can only mean to the Europeans that they will have to defend themselves without American help. That will make it reasonable to consider quitting NATO and opting for a different system of security -- possibly even a negotiated demilitarization.

For the present, most European peace group leaders are limiting their attention to pragmatic concerns. Those who had been united in their opposition to total evil, the Euromissiles, are no longer unified in their views about how to rid their country of nuclear weapons. Some speak of buying time and waiting for the impact of the "Star Wars" project to penetrate the thinking of leaders. Another approach is to foster détente.

But so far, not many Europeans can see that far ahead. "Star Wars" has not met with great resistance in Europe yet. The countries that might wish to join a De Smaele-type Security Zone would probably still be inhibited by their ties to Britain and the United States, who would be the staunchest opponents of the plan. They would, no doubt, pin their objections on the themes of security and verification. How could European countries defend themselves? And how could anyone be sure that the agreed-upon demilitarization would be carried out unreservedly? An international peacekeeping and verification force might allay both of these concerns -- but so long as Europeans dare not entertain the idea of doing without NATO, they will not get down to hard-headed planning along these lines.

But most of all, European activists are buckling down to the long challenge of empowering the public and raising the general level of awareness. Robert de Gendt, a trade unionist and Catholic who leads the Flemish coalition of peace groups in Belgium, claims that in his country, as in many others, "international policy was always the affair of a very small club." He sees the movement's responsibility now as the democratization of foreign policy. "To do that you need many people who are capable, who are studying earnestly, and objectively, not merely propagandistically. Spontaneous actions can help you for a while, but please don't do too much ... We need a much wider, fundamental conscientization about the problems. That's not a thing you can do by going from one demonstration to another. That's a generation's work."

In West Germany recently, there was a split in the peace movement. De Gendt explains that Pax Christi and some of the other groups, noticing that the demonstrations had been decreasing enormously, announced to the others, "If you want to kill the peace movement just continue organizing demonstrations each month or two. That is impossible!"

What we need is to deepen and conscientize. Try to change the mentality in the existing par ties. You have to talk, to convince! You have to prepare papers! You have to bring people together! And that will take time."

Peace Magazine August 1985

Peace Magazine August 1985, page 26. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Metta Spencer here

Peace Magazine homepage