Changes arising from the collapse of the Cold War continue to tumble across Europe at a dizzying pace. Despite the need for caution, it is hard to escape the conclusion that real peace is breaking out.
Even as Germans were celebrating the reunification of their long-divided country, the United States and Soviet Union announced this week an agreement to cut conventional military forces in Europe.This is not a token pact; it is the most comprehensive accord since the end of World War II. It is especially remarkable for three reasons:
First, most of the reductions will take place in Soviet strength; second, the cut in Soviet forces extends all the way to the Ural Mountains deep inside the Soviet Union on the edge of Asia; third, the cuts are not mere promises but reflect what the Soviet Union has already started to do.
The treaty includes vital verification procedures to make sure that no one cheats.
All of this adds up to an utterly astounding shift in the balance of military forces in Europe.
Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze joked that the "Soviet Union made all the concessions." Yet there is more truth than humor in the remark. For example, the deal calls for the Warsaw Pact withdrawal of 40,000 tanks, 51,000 artillery pieces, more than 40,000 armored personnel carriers - two thirds of current deployment - plus unspecified numbers of aircraft.
The impact on smaller NATO forces would be minimal, only about 2,000 tanks.
The Soviet forces would be withdrawn behind the Ural Mountains, some 1,200 miles from the the Soviet-Poland border.
Because of the absorption of East Germany into a unified Germany that remains a part of NATO, plus the fall of communism throughout Eastern Europe, the old Warsaw Pact has essentially ceased to exist as a Soviet alliance. As a result, Soviet forces in East Europe already have been reduced by 20,000 tanks, 24,000 artillery pieces, 860 combat aircraft and 40 warships.
Limits on numbers of soldiers were not included in the arms agreement, but the Soviets have reduced their total military strength by 300,000 troops. By 1991, all Soviet soldiers will be gone from Hungary and Czechoslovakia and by the middle of the decade from Germany and Poland.
Gen. Mikhail Moiseyev, chief of the Soviet general staff and the nation's top-ranking military officer, said: "Europe can no longer be looked upon as a potential theater of war."
Those are comforting words, and it looks more each day as if they can be taken at face value.
In the meantime, with the pact on conventional forces behind them, U.S. and Soviet negotiators have begun work on a treaty to reduce strategic nuclear weapons. An informal deal already has been reached to cut long-range missiles, nuclear submarines and bombers by 30 percent.
More work must still be done on the details, but unlike arms talks in years past that could be examples in frustration as Soviet negotiators refused to budge, the Soviets now seem eager to deal.
The world is still a dangerous place, as the Persian Gulf crisis shows, but conflict between the two superpowers appears to be fading so fast that people are not sure what to do with their lingering suspicions.