Soviet capacity to launch a quick, massive attack with non-nuclear forces in Central Europe will disappear in a mountain of scrapped military equipment under the most comprehensive disarmament treaty ever negotiated.
More than 19,000 Soviet tanks, 30,000 heavy artillery pieces and 10,000 armored personnel carriers are likely to be dismantled. What's left of the once-mighty Warsaw Pact military machine, which in the end succeeded only in weakening Soviet bloc economies, will be subjected to international monitoring to foreclose future aggression.
NATO drawdowns -- 4,000 tanks, for example -- will be more modest because conventional Western forces remained much smaller throughout the Cold War, relying as they did on a flexible nuclear response as a deterrent.
What diplomacy is codifying reflects developments that began last year when Eastern European countries broke free of Moscow's grasp and the Kremlin unilaterally started withdrawing forces. But it is of extraordinary importance that the whole
process be nailed down and enforced through a multinational agreement.
Unless a Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty is in place, efforts to establish a pan-European security arrangement won't have much practical meaning. That explains why the Bush administration has refused to attend a 33-nation summit under the Conference on Security and Cooperation until a CFE pact is completed.
Even under new ceilings that permit each alliance 20,000 tanks, 20,000 artillery pieces, 30,000 armored combat vehicles, 2,000 helicopters and 7,000 combat aircraft, Europe will still be bristling with arms. At least for the short term.
Both the United States and the Soviet Union are under heavy domestic pressure to slash their troop presence in Central Europe. All Russian forces are to be out of newly united Germany by 1994. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney has announced the early withdrawal of 40,000 American troops; four or five times that number may follow.
If a CFE treaty is signed Nov. 18 in Paris, a CSCE summit will convene next day to begin setting up a European security system in which the superpowers will have roles much diminished from the Cold War era. An American-Soviet Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty will follow.
This burst of arms control diplomacy will lose considerable meaning if it becomes only one big celebration. If it forces nations to ponder how wasteful and vainglorious are oversized war machines, a good purpose will be served. If it goads them to consider how much more needs to be done in controlling chemical, biological, nuclear and missile weaponry throughout the world, an even better purpose will be served.