Commentary Magazine


How NATO Weakens the West, by Melvyn Krauss

Going It Alone

How NATO Weakens the West.
by Melvyn Krauss.
Simon & Schuster. 217 pp. $18.95.

Melvyn Krauss here stumbles through the thickets of international affairs armed only with the analytical tools and moral assumptions of a free-market economist. During his whirlwind survey of this foreign terrain, he casts a jaundiced eye at those nations generally considered most well-disposed toward the United States and its aims, and finds that in fact their attitudes diverge too widely from ours for them to be useful friends.

Indeed, according to Krauss, not only NATO but all our alliances leave us and our allies weaker militarily than we would be without them. If, he concludes, our aim is to strengthen our defenses against the Soviet Union and its satellites, we must begin by withdrawing our troops from Europe, from Korea, and even from Japan (unless we can manage to persuade the Japanese to pay for the defenses with which we provide them). As for the prospect of intervening in the Third World, the experience of Vietnam teaches that never again must we commit troops to combat there, except in the case of another sure thing like Grenada.

The weaknesses of this book are manifest at every level of analysis, starting with Krauss’s conception of the NATO alliance itself and what it is for. He complains that our NATO allies simply do not pull their financial weight; in 1983, he points out, we spent nearly twice the percentage of Gross Domestic Product (6.6) on defense that the European NATO nations did (3.6). In leveling this charge, Krauss fails to consider that NATO is a regional alliance while we are a global power with commitments and interests in, for example, Central America and the Pacific Basin that our allies do not share. Nor does he acknowledge that part of the reason we pay so much for defense is that we have chosen to have all-volunteer armed forces which cost substantially more than the conscript armies that several of our NATO allies have had the domestic courage to retain. Instead, he concludes from his numbers that we are subsidizing the West Europeans’ defenses, while they are putting the money we save them into their welfare programs—a state of affairs that rouses to fury the free-market economist within him.

When we subsidize NATO’s defense, Krauss argues, we do not merely allow our European allies to pay as little as they can get away with for the defense of their own continent; we also encourage them to adopt a cringing, self-serving attitude toward the Soviet Union. For subsidies, as we know from domestic experience, weaken the moral fiber of their recipients. As things stand now, we have given the Europeans every incentive to continue to worship at the hollow shrine of détente, a religion that provides them in turn with the arguments they require to justify their paltry contributions to NATO’s defense coffers. Conversely, if they had to face the Soviet threat without the support of disproportionately large U.S. subventions, the West Europeans would of necessity face reality, acknowledge their danger, and thus be compelled to increase their defense expenditures and alter their rhetoric and world view accordingly.

Krauss sees no need to look further than this to explain why our West European allies should profess a view of the international arena so different from ours. He does not consider how their common borders with the Soviet Union, as opposed to our intervening half-continent and Atlantic Ocean, might influence the positions they have adopted. Nor does he recall our late entry into two world wars, which may have suggested to Europeans that their interests are not always identical with ours.

This is not to say that Krauss is wrong about the failings of the Europeans. As he points out, they have adopted a policy of bribing the Soviets not to invade them by offering entangling economic subsidies like the natural-gas pipeline. (We do similar things, but not, he insists, to the same extent.) According to Rand Corporation estimates, OECD export credit subsidies to all Communist countries in 1981 stood at $3 billion; Krauss concludes, fairly, that such subsidies only make the Soviets a more formidable and expensive enemy for the United States to counter.

In addition, many of our NATO allies regularly dissent publicly from our positions abroad, or condone Soviet while condemning U.S. actions, especially in the Third World. As Henry S. Rowen of the Hoover Institution, whom Krauss quotes in this context, has noted, the Europeans regard the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as “deplorable” but as requiring no response on their part, and they see the new Soviet presence in Syria as a legitimate reaction to an illegitimate attack on Lebanon by America’s ally, Israel. On the other hand, they view U.S. pressures against the Marxist-Leninist regime in Nicaragua as anti-democratic; they condemned our invasion of Grenada as a bullying overreaction to a trivial squabble; and so forth. In his own list of European sins, Krauss has included a longish section denouncing the degenerate attitude of our NATO allies toward Middle Eastern terrorists.

Even if this last rings embarrassingly hollow against the background of our own, newly revealed, behavior toward Iran, Krauss has a point here: continuous disagreements on individual foreign-policy issues and the differences underlying those disagreements do threaten the alliance. The U.S. is not a very self-confident player in the international arena. While the Reagan administration has groped for a renewed, post-Vietnam sense of national purpose in foreign affairs, relations with our NATO allies have been greatly strained by their constant, carping criticisms, which play upon our own internal divisions and self-doubts.

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Aside from all this, Krauss also maintains that our assumption of a disproportionately large share of NATO’s defense burden no longer makes strategic sense. When the U.S. had clear nuclear superiority over the USSR, relying on our nuclear arsenal to deter a Soviet attack on Europe was a credible policy. But our present situation of nuclear parity, Krauss believes, has reduced our declared reliance on a nuclear first strike to “99-percent bluff” (as Irving Kristol has put it). A corollary of this view is that a non-nuclear war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact has therefore become a dangerous possibility, and that is a war we would lose, and quickly. To support this claim Krauss cites a remark once made by General Bernard Rogers, the U.S. commander of NATO’s European military forces, to the effect that if Moscow launched a conventional attack, the length of time NATO could hold back Soviet forces would be measured in days.

If Krauss truly believes that our nuclear deterrent lacks credibility, and that the Soviets could win a conventional war in less than a week, he fails to ask the logical question: what keeps them from attacking? Either they must be content with the status quo or they do not share Krauss’s assessment of the strategic situation. As for how NATO’s forces would stack up against those of the Soviet Union in a conventional conflict, this is an immensely complicated issue on which reasonable experts can and do disagree. Krauss’s view is not that of a reasonable expert, however, or even a well-informed amateur, but that of a polemical journalist. And in any case, however pessimistic one’s view of NATO’s holding capacity, it is hard to see how that capacity would improve if the U.S. withdrew its forces from Europe. Certainly the reader of a book advocating such a withdrawal deserves more than a single supporting quotation from a general in the field: rare is the commanding officer who feels that he has been given perfectly adequate resources to carry out his mission.

Krauss wants us to believe that in the event of war we should have to choose almost immediately between defeat on the one hand, and escalation to nuclear conflict on the other hand. By positing the choice in this way he means to reveal the gross irresponsibility of the welfare-addicted Europeans, who persist in refusing to help raise the nuclear threshold through heavier contributions to the alliance’s conventional defense capabilities. He thus arrives at a kind of syllogism: Europe’s welfare systems, by keeping the Europeans from increasing their conventional forces, are putting the very survival of the planet in jeopardy; it is our defense umbrella that makes possible their irresponsible commitment to welfare over defense; therefore, all our problems and theirs will be solved when we remove the defense umbrella by withdrawing our troops.

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The economist in Krauss is transfixed above all by the amount of cash the United States would save by such a withdrawal. A conservative estimate has put the cost of NATO to the American taxpayer in 1986 at $134 billion. In his NATO-free vision, Krauss would not relocate the 360,000 American troops now stationed in Europe, but would simply discharge them and reduce the American armed forces by that number. He would thereby save the country the entire $134 billion. Next, with just under half that sum, he would buy a Strategic Defense Initiative behind which “Fortress America” could safely sit. With the rest he would cut a hefty chunk from the nation’s budget deficit.

And why stop with NATO? Our European allies look like wild-eyed spenders when compared with the Japanese. The West Germans, for example, spend three-and-one-half times the proportion of their economic production on defense that the Japanese do. Still, Krauss goes easier on the Japanese because they at least show no sign of becoming reconciled to the Soviet occupation and recent fortification of Japan’s Northern Territories; they have not tried to bribe their way into the Soviet Union’s good graces with a “détente-as-defense” strategy; and they have never given more than 2.5 percent of their trade to the Soviet Union.

Nevertheless, since the United States has had to keep its own budget deficit high so that the Japanese do not have to increase theirs, Krauss wants them to pay for the defense that we provide. He would have them do this through a “compensatory resource transfer” which would offend neither Japanese anti-militarism nor the U.S. taxpayer. He finds precedent for such a scheme in the existing arrangements under which Japan since 1971 has reimbursed the United States for the 25,100 U.S. Marines stationed on Okinawa to the tune of $1 billion per year.

How are we to induce the Japanese suddenly to pay vast sums for what they have been receiving free? Once again, the answer lies in our leaving NATO: Krauss believes that the spectacle of a U.S. troop withdrawal from Western Europe would so shock the Japanese they would have to reconsider their own minimalist defense posture. Shocked they certainly would be. Whether the popular reaction would permit even so friendly a regime as the present one in Japan to begin turning billions of dollars over to the U.S. Treasury is rather less certain. It is absurd to assume, as Krauss does, that democratic and Western-leaning Pacific countries have no alternatives but the U.S. at any price.

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Then there is South Korea. According to Krauss, Jimmy Carter was correct in 1977 to want to begin a phased withdrawal of our ground forces there, but for the wrong reasons. Misguidedly, Carter was reacting to what he took to be the human-rights violations of the Park Chung Hee regime. Krauss, who would never be guilty of such “moral imperialism,” would nevertheless proceed with what our former President was dissuaded from doing then.

For the South Koreans, too, emerge from this book as defense “free-riders.” Even though they actually spend about as much of their total economic production on defense as we do, Krauss considers this grossly inadequate, for three reasons. First, the South Koreans are (technically) at war with North Korea, so they have no right to a peacetime defense budget. Second, the North Koreans spend somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of their GDP on defense. Finally, the presence of our troops in the peninsula keeps South Korean defense spending artificially low. It is the American “trip-wire” force that makes the South Koreans feel comfortable about their security problem with their neighbor to the north, and this is a bad thing because if they were more insecure they would spend more money. Why, Krauss asks, can they not be more like the Israelis, who in a similarly precarious position, but without an American presence to reassure them, spend over 35 percent of their GDP on defense? (Elsewhere, Krauss has rude words even for the Israelis, whom he accuses of being fiscally irresponsible and of having a too-powerful lobby in Washington.)

Finally, there is the Third World in general. There Krauss wants us to support our developing allies—he approves of aid to the Nicaraguan resistance, for example—so long as we do not do so with troops. While he never explicitly considers possible scenarios, he makes it unequivocally clear what course of action he would wish to see adopted if Nicaragua were to invade Costa Rica or Honduras; if the Vietnamese were to march into Thailand; if a Soviet-backed National People’s Army were to begin wreaking havoc with the new Aquino regime in the Philippines; if the North Koreans were to have another go at reuniting the peninsula; or if the Syrians and their allies were to try to destroy Israel. In all these instances, he would advocate arming, equipping, and training our friends but never falling into the trap of actually defending them. Whatever the crisis, however grave the danger to our allies’ survival and to our regional interests, our troops—or what would be left of them—must stay home.

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Collectively, the term Melvyn Krauss applies to his preferred policy is “global unilateralism”; actually, the proper term is isolationism. But whatever the position is called, these days Krauss is far from alone in holding it. Indeed, at the very moment when Soviet military power is expanding on all fronts, growing numbers of American observers have begun to advocate jettisoning those alliances which, whatever their imperfections, have served the West well to the present. In the face of admittedly complicated problems—the cracks and dissension in NATO, the development of movements such as West Germany’s Greens, New Zealand’s naive assertion of its freedom from the nuclear threat—these neophyte strategists seek simple, comprehensive solutions which they mistakenly imagine will help arouse the sense of national purpose in us and/or our allies. (One is reminded of George VI who, on learning of the fall of France in 1940, remarked, “Personally, I feel happier now that we have no allies to be polite to and pamper.”) Such a solution is that offered by Melvyn Krauss with his prescription for universal dis-engagement.

Although Krauss’s argument is often intricate (perhaps a better word would be “convoluted”), it is dogmatic and entirely lacks subtlety. He makes only very occasional concessions to differences among the NATO nations, for example, and virtually none to the disparities among the various political groups within those nations. He seems indifferent to the fact that there are NATO supporters in Europe working for larger defense budgets. Similarly, he ignores the fact that those who oppose such increases share his wish to see the alliance disintegrate not because that would strengthen but because it would weaken the West. But whether our European friends would be hurt by the actions that he recommends America take, and our enemies helped, are matters of sublime indifference to him. He knows only that he is not going to pay for anyone’s welfare system.

How NATO Weakens the West includes no analysis of how NATO strengthens the West, or could be made to do so. Krauss might have asked, but does not, how, if the Europeans (and Japanese) contribute too little to the common defense, we could attempt to find ways to get them to pay more. There are such ways: we could, for example, link our contributions to theirs through some reasonable quid pro quo arrangement. Alternatively, as Eliot Cohen has suggested, NATO itself could be restructured, with the U.S. increasing air and nuclear forces on the continent on condition that the Europeans increase their conventional ground forces.

Clearly, such suggestions would strike no responsive chord in Melvyn Krauss, for there appears to be nothing in him that wishes to strengthen the Western alliance. Indeed, should we desert the alliance, and its members then fail to respond by creating a Third Independent Force capable of dealing with the Soviets on its own, this would only prove they were not worthy allies in the first place, and be further evidence we were well rid of them. Krauss cannot lose in this debate with himself. He longs only to shake us free from NATO and our other parasitic alliances, and to live in splendid isolation behind his SDI.

Without NATO, however, it is difficult to see why we would need Krauss’s SDI. What reason would the Soviet Union have to attack us, bereft of all our allies and without any commitments beyond our frontiers? We should present so little danger to them as to be irrelevant, having conceded defeat in the struggle that has occupied us since the end of World War II.

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