World

The Mack-and-blue Danube waltz

Peter Lewis May 26 1980
World

The Mack-and-blue Danube waltz

Peter Lewis May 26 1980

The Mack-and-blue Danube waltz

World

Peter Lewis

The waltz on the Danube was impressive, but it finished with a discord. As the foreign ministers of the great powers met in Vienna late last week, on the 25th anniversary of the Austrian state treaty, to take a crack at solving the world’s woes, there were moments when people observing their elegant dance could imagine that a breakthrough was imminent. Yet when Edmund Muskie, the new United States secretary of state, stepped from a threehour meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko—it was the first significant encounter between Washington and Moscow since Soviet troops barrelled into Kabul on Christmas—he broke the spell with a few terse words to indicate the parley had failed in any way to pull the superpowers out of crisis.

And yet the meeting, staged in the Redoutensaal of the old Hofburg palace of the Austro-Hungarian emperors, was not a fiasco, if only because it occurred at all in the present climate and gave Muskie and Gromyko a chance to mull over—at surprising length—their standpoints in the new power equation created by the Afghanistan invasion. The letdown was due more to the exaggerated expectations of the media, which had cracked Vienna up as a turning point, than anything the principal actors ventured to say before or after the event.

Then, hardly had the dust settled, than France caused a sensation by announcing that President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, in a move typical of the coum

try’s maverick diplomacy, was flying urgently to Poland to meet with President Leonid Brezhnev. As the surprise meeting took place on Monday in a 17thcentury chateau just outside Warsaw, Western capitals barely concealed their fury with the French for undertaking a back-door initiative which, to all appearances, could only play into Brezhnev’s hands as he pursued his long-term goal of driving a wedge between Washington and its European allies.

Although the French did their utmost to minimize the Warsaw encounter, describing it as an “informal talk” that was not expected to produce concrete results, the summit was viewed as a

particular affront to West Germany’s Helmut Schmidt who had, with the discreet blessings of Washington, been planning his own meeting next month with Soviet leaders.

“France has won its first Olympic medal,” sneered a top German official who clearly felt that the encounter, apart from its other sins, was a reward from Brezhnev to the French following the decision of France’s Olympic committee last week to send its athletes to the Moscow Games.

However, the Warsaw summit seemed likely to prove to be less crucial at the current juncture in East-West relations than the Vienna parley between Gromyko and Muskie because, in a prolonged crisis between the superpowers, even an inconclusive meeting between giants counted more than a spectacular hug-fest between one of the giants and a secondary power.

In the event, precious little of what actually transpired between Muskie and Gromyko, who conversed alone for most of the time with their interpreters, leaked to the press.

The host city, Vienna, had turned out in its spring finery to celebrate the birthday of the 1955 state treaty which made Austria neutral and freed the country from occupation by the four powers—a solution that the European Community has suggested might be used in the case of Afghanistan. As a dozen ministers conversed in the Hofburg, the Viennese occupied themselves with flags, flowers and song—choirs held forth cheerfully from a podium in the Stock im Eisen Platz for a solid 10 hours—and with the free drink, which a number of patriotic barkeeps had thoughtfully agreed to dispense in

back-street bars. The lesson of Austria’s pride in its independence was not lost on those of the visiting dignitaries who had Afghanistan on their minds.

In his talks with Gromyko, Muskie failed to budge the Soviet Union on Afghanistan and apparently got only a slight rise on subjects that Moscow and Washington both view as still negotiable despite their current stand-off: medium-range nuclear missiles, SALT III and trade.

British sources travelling to Vienna with Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington, the only Western minister to be briefed by Muskie after the SovietAmerican encounter, said Gromyko had indicated that the Soviet Union had made up its mind to pursue the military option in Afghanistan in the coming summer months, in the hope of smashing all armed opposition before the weather closed in again in October.

Only if this drive failed would the Soviets be tempted to seek a face-saving exit. And in these conditions Muskie could go no further than to warn the Soviets that a summer massacre of Moslem guerrillas could put an intolerable strain on East-West relations.

However, Muskie was reported this week to be toying with the possibility of soon approaching the Soviets again, depending on what happened in Warsaw between Brezhnev and Giscard. Although Washington was peeved with France for, as it saw it, currying favor with the Soviets, it could not exclude the chance that the Soviet leader, realizing he had put Giscard on the spot with his Western partners, would feel obliged to offer him something to take home with him. That something might merely be a bauble—but it might also prove to be a ball Washington could play with.