Remembering the INF Treaty: The Euromissile Battle Was About the Future of Europe


2012-12-13 By Robbin Laird

Leadership always looks easy in the rear view mirror.

We often hear that it was easier in the Cold War because the landscape was so black and white.  Now it is much harder, we are frequently told, because the enemy is diffuse, complex and asymmetric.

When has an enemy not been asymmetric?

Harder or not, leadership is crucial to shaping a decent path through the chaos of current history shaping the future.

Never was this truer than the Euromissile battle of the early 1980s, which led eventually to the Intermediate Nuclear Force agreement.  But the lesson learned here is not really about arms control, which remains an historical sideshow, but about politics, bargaining, and shaping future options.

If the Soviets had been able to split the Alliance, to split Europe within itself across political lines, the Soviet empire might still be around.

But the failure to do so, which in turn led, to very odd political alliances in Europe and with the United States, laid the foundation for the further erosion of the Soviet Union, and the emergence of a unified Germany.

We could ask whether the current European and American leadership could have pulled off what the leaders of the 1980s did.  And they did so in spite of fundamentally different politically visions and often personal disdain for one another.

This period is one in which I was a regular observer.  I spent much time in Europe during the conflict, talked with many European policy makers, entered into public debates about the Soviets and nuclear weapons, and wrote many articles and books related directly to the Soviet-European relationship.

It was clear from dealing with European politics first hand and Soviet policy directed towards Europe that Europe and the Alliance were on the edge.  Many of the European leaders simply did not like one another, and short of Mrs. Thatcher is would have been hard to find many fans of Ronald Reagan at the time in Europe.

François Mitterrand’s famous 1983 speech before the Bundestag, Credit: French Government 

But a hidden relationship, which became central to the ultimate success, was that between two of the oddest of partners, Reagan and Mitterrand.  Francois Mitterrand and Reagan had some things in common; both were political foxes with long histories in their societies.  But the similarities really stopped there.

I often dealt with the Mitterrand Administration in this period and it was certainly clear that a Gaullist approach to simply ensure that French nucs were not part of any agreement would have been enough.

But Mitterrand became convinced that the Soviets had much broader objectives, and he entered the fray directly in Germany and backed the American and NATO plan to deploy Pershing IIs and GLCMs in Europe in “response” to the SS-20 deployments.

One of the pieces we worked on during this time and was published in both French and English and was widely circulated within France was an assessment which Susan Clark and I had done on how the Soviets looked at the French military and its capabilities.

The piece we translated included a target map of the French sites, which included many nuclear related facilities.

It was clear that in case of war, French nuclear weapons were not viewed by the Soviets as providing any sanctuary against Soviet attacks, including nuclear ones.

Our article and discussions about the Soviet analysis of France in which I participated had a clear impact, by taking off the table any notion in France that a US-Soviet confrontation on something as fundamental as nuclear weapons in European defense did not involve France, in the Alliance military structure or not.

But also going on was the Reagan-Mitterrand dynamic built around the Farwell Affair.  Mitterrand decided to share with President Reagan unique intelligence information, which the French had gathered which should how the Soviets were stealing the US and the West blind on defense industrial information.

The information showed significant Soviet penetrations into the US intelligence and other communities.  The CIA leadership was less than enthusiastic about working with a “socialist” President with “communists” in his government.

Fortunately, Mitterrand provided the leadership to engage Reagan, and Reagan remembered that as President it was his responsibility to provide for US national security, not the intelligence community.

For the past few months, France had had a mole, code name “Farewell,” operating at the heart of one of the most sensitive divisions of the KGB. During a face-to-face meeting, Mitterrand shared this secret with Ronald Reagan and revealed to him the scope of global Soviet industrial pillage. At the time, the American president did not fully understand the impact

exploit this valuable intelligence resource from the White House end. The agent-in-place performed heroically, but committed actions that compromised his identity. The highly effective and secret cooperation served to reinforce French-U.S. relations and build mutual confidence.

Sergei Kostin and Eric Raynaud, The Greatest Spy Story of the Twentieth Century.

To this day, the level of knowledge in the US strategic community about the Farwell Affair is minimal, and I would guess that I would be alone in connecting the Farwell Affair with the INF dynamic.

But they were inextricably intertwined.

The solid political relationship between Reagan and Mitterrand carried over into the Bush Presidency and provided as basis for Bush working with Mitterrand in shaping a common approach to German unification.  Without the solidarity shaped under the pressure of the Euromissile crisis and the intimate working through on the dismantling of the Soviet industrial espionage network, such support would have proven difficult.

That is the real lesson of the INF affair; not the treaty.

For example see the following:

Robbin F. Laird, France, the Soviet Union and the Nuclear Weapons Issue (Westview Press, 1985) and Robbin F. Laird, The Soviet Union, the West, and the Nuclear Arms Race (London: Wheatsheaf Books, 1986).

For a companion piece see the following:

And for the Mitterrand speech see the following: