Commentary Magazine

The Demise of NATO

Today NATO is floundering in a permanent state of crisis, for the two conditions on which it was built—American invulnerability and European weakness—have virtually disappeared. The nuclear stalemate has erased the significance of American atomic supremacy, while the evolution of military technology has made the United States directly vulnerable to attack. Europe, for its part, has reconstituted itself into a stable and powerful economic force, one which is eager to assert its independence and potentially capable of defending its own interests. In combination, these two changes in the world power structure have undermined NATO’s foundation and thrown its future into doubt.

In its original conception NATO was meant to be a simple guarantee pact between the United States and Europe. It held out the promise that America would intervene if necessary to prevent Western Europe from falling under Communist control. Thus it was, in effect, an extension of the Monroe Doctrine from the Western hemisphere to Europe, with a repudiation of that provision which forbade our interference in European affairs. For the Europeans, the pact with America offered the promise of a desperately needed breathing space to help them weather the early postwar period of social unrest and economic hardship. Behind the shield of NATO—and with the stimulus of the Marshall Plan—the Europeans would build up their own economies so that they might become secure from subversion within and strong enough to protect themselves from without. The alliance, then, appeared to be in everyone’s interest: it gave the Europeans an opportunity to reconstruct their economies without the burden of a large-scale arms program; and it gave America the assurance that the resources of Western Europe would not drop by default into Russian hands.

But if the avowed purpose of NATO was to serve as a military adjunct to what was essentially an economic aid program—the idea being that the Marshall Plan would ultimately pay itself off in the ability of the Europeans to provide their own defense—there was also another view of the relative priorities of American military and economic involvement in Europe. The Truman administration, in fact, was split in two over the issue. On the one side were those who saw the Soviet threat as primarily political-economic and only secondarily military; for them NATO was a fence behind which Europe could rebuild its shattered house. On the other side were those who conceived the alliance as a military counter-force to the Soviet presence in Eastern Europe, and as a device for securing advanced bases for American power. In this view, Soviet aggression was believed to be imminent, and NATO was therefore seen only as the prelude to a vast rearmament program designed to achieve parity on the Continent with the Russians.



These two views were quite irreconcilable because they rested on totally different interpretations of Europe’s needs and Russia’s intentions. The conflict, however, was soon resolved in favor of those who regarded NATO as the framework for a powerful military counter to the Soviet Union. Accordingly, the alliance was transformed from a simple guarantee pact, under which America promised to come to Europe’s defense in case of a Soviet attack, into an integrated military force pooling the resources of Europe and America. Within less than two years after the treaty was signed, Secretary of State Acheson called for the rearmament of Germany and the incorporation of ten German divisions into a European land army.

Despite this change, however, the alliance continued to rest—as it had rested since its inception—upon the strength of the American nuclear deterrent. The nuclear guarantee was the ultimate line of Western defense, and—despite token military integration—control of the deterrent lay entirely in American hands. So far as the Europeans were concerned, this meant that there was always the danger that the United States, for reasons of its own safety, might one day decide to withdraw the guarantee, thereby leaving the continent vulnerable to Russian aggression. American involvement in Europe was too recent a phenomenon for Europeans to take for granted; more vivid in their minds was the long history of American isolationism. Nor could the creation of a European land army solve this problem, for even with a large conventional army Europe could not deter the Russians from using their nuclear weapons if there were no fear of American nuclear reprisal. Thus, the Europeans were obliged to find some means of making sure that in the event of Russian aggression against the Continent, the United States would be committed from the very start.

The answer lay in the American troops stationed in Europe as a contribution to the NATO land forces. The presence of these soldiers served, in a way that no promise or treaty possibly could, to guarantee that the United States would be immediately drawn into any military struggle in Europe. In other words, these troops were simply American hostages to Europe. Whatever additional functions they may have had, this was—and still is—their primary purpose, and it explains why our European allies have always been determined to keep them there. Unable by themselves to hold back any serious Soviet assault, the American divisions in Germany are the only tangible proof that the American nuclear guarantee really does extend to Europe.

Obviously, neither American nor European strategists could openly admit this, not even to each other. Such an admission would have horrified the United States Congress (which had been persuaded that NATO was the first step toward a mystical trans-Atlantic brotherhood), and it might have led to a new sweep of isolationism—exactly what the Europeans were bent on preventing. Consequently, elaborate theories were designed to account for the American land forces in Germany: they were there because the Europeans were outnumbered by Russian “hordes” (although census figures revealed this to be nonsense); or to serve as a “trip wire” which would bring an immediate nuclear response to any Russian land probe (although the Europeans could have played the same role themselves—if they had trusted the American guarantee).

So the Europeans got their hostages—but only at a price. The price was the creation of sizable land armies which were larger than the token commitments they had originally been prepared to make to NATO. Faced by labor shortages, material scarcities, and public hostility, the governments of Western Europe nevertheless restored the draft and devoted a considerable proportion of their scarce resources to building an army that was larger than they wanted and one for which NATO strategy could assign no function.

But the American hostages in Germany not only assured the Europeans that the United States was inextricably involved in the fate of the Continent; they also made the American nuclear deterrent more credible to the Russians. America’s strategic nuclear arsenal, plus the tactical atomic weapons at the front, together formed the backbone of European defense. If the Russians relied upon their superior conventional forces to start a westward probe, they would be decimated by American short-range tactical weapons. And if they should be so foolish as to launch an all-out attack on Western Europe, America’s strategic nuclear force would be unleashed in terrible retribution against the Soviet Union itself.

This strategy was reasonable so long as the United States retained a monopoly on tactical atomic weapons. But the whole picture changed when the Russians incorporated tactical atomic weapons into their army as well. From that point on, any confrontation of forces in Central Europe promised to escalate into a full-scale nuclear holocaust, and NATO’s pledge to use atomic weapons in defense of Europe would only be realizable at the cost of transforming the Continent into a radioactive charnel-house. While the distinction between a nuclear war fought with tactical weapons and one fought with strategic weapons may be relevant to residents of Chicago, it is of little significance for the millions of people concentrated in the narrow land corridors of Europe.

In short, despite the missile bases, despite the nuclear stockpiles, despite the troops trained in the use of atomic weapons, NATO’s nuclear strategy ceased to make sense on the day the Russians equipped their own forces with tactical nuclear weapons. At that moment it became unmistakably clear that America’s vast nuclear force, all protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, could only be used to deter the Russians from launching an attack on Europe—but never to fight battles on the Continent once war had erupted. If deterrence ever broke down, there could be no nuclear defense of Europe that would not also mean the destruction of Europe. Yet to have admitted this would have been to demolish the entire foundation on which NATO’s elaborate structure for defense had been built.



It was to cope with the new situation and restore a lost credibility to NATO that the Kennedy administration proposed an increase in the alliance’s land forces from 23 to a total of 30 divisions. In the eyes of its advocates this proposal offered the prospect of a conventional NATO response to any Soviet land probe in Central Europe without the suicidal resort to nuclear weapons. By an unfortunate coincidence, 30 was exactly the number of divisions which NATO had earlier claimed was the bare minimum necessary to support a strategy relying on the very tactical weapons that it now proposed to circumvent. How the same 30 divisions could serve either strategy equally well was a mystery no one cared to explain.

This increased land force would have to come from the Europeans themselves, giving them the task of countering any Russian land attack by conventional means. As its part in the new strategy, the United States would continue to keep its troops as hostage in West Germany, but its principal contribution would be the awesome nuclear arsenal which it harbors for the joint defense of the West. From an American point of view, this division of labor—European manpower plus the American nuclear deterrent—seemed an ideal solution to NATO’s defense problems: at long last the old Dulles doctrine of “massive retaliation”—so bold in phrase, so meaningless in effect—could be put to rest. From the European point of view, however, the new strategy has come too late and promises too little. For the advent of the intercontinental missile, by making the United States itself vulnerable to Russian nuclear power, has brought the credibility of our guarantee to Europe into even more serious question than before.

Nations are often loyal to one another; sometimes they will even fight on their friends’ behalf. But nuclear weapons have made war qualitatively different from anything nations have experienced in the past. Nobody can be sure that a nation will deliberately commit suicide in response to an attack on its allies. The Europeans know that “never” and “always” have been said too many times in the history of alliances for any nation to count upon them; and they well remember Czechoslovakia in 1938 and Budapest in 1956. De Gaulle voiced a widespread underlying fear in Europe when he said:

America and Soviet Russia are able to strike one another directly and no doubt reciprocally able to destroy one another. It is not certain that they will risk it. No one today can know when, or how, or why one or the other of these great atomic powers will use its nuclear arsenal. One has only to say this in order to understand that as far as concerns the defense of France, the battle of Europe, and even the world war such as they were imagined when NATO was created, all is brought into question.

For the supreme task of nuclear deterrence, then, alliances have ceased to be psychologically credible, although they remain useful for other purposes. Only a political confederation can give the assurance that an attack upon one really is an attack upon all. But the “Atlantic community,” however laudable a goal, is still little more than rhetoric, and the disintegrating NATO alliance appears increasingly unlikely to furnish a stable base for a political union between America and Europe—one which neither partner seems willing to translate from hyperbole to reality.



A part from all this, the new emphasis on conventional forces in Europe is no solution to the disagreements within the alliance because it consigns the Europeans to an inherently inferior role. Europe today is an emerging great power, the economic equal of America, and potentially capable of defending itself. Caught up in the vision of European union, a vision which we ourselves encouraged them to form, and impelled by the very economic recovery that we ourselves fostered in order to make them self-sufficient once again, the Europeans are no longer content to leave the ultimate decision between war and peace concentrated exclusively in American hands. There should be nothing surprising in this. “It is,” as Henry Kissinger has pointed out, “against all reason to expect our European allies to integrate their conventional forces in a joint command and to place increased reliance on a conventional defense, while one partner reserves for itself a monopoly on the means of responding to the Soviet nuclear threat and freedom of action in employing nuclear weapons.”

In sum, it is not simply that certain defense policies have become outdated, but rather that the whole structure of the alliance has become anachronistic, and is not likely to be revitalized by gimmicks such as nuclear multilateralism and missile-carrying cargo ships. Multilateralism, under which the United States and the European allies would both contribute to a pool of nuclear weapons, is simply a device for side-stepping the basic question of who shall control the West’s nuclear forces. If the projected joint nuclear force were to be controlled by a committee of nations operating under majority rule, it would have the power to pull the United States into a nuclear war even against its own will—a situation that no American President has ever proposed and that no Congress would permit. If, on the other hand, the joint nuclear force is to be subject to an American veto—as the administration has admitted—then there is little hope that it will satisfy the desire of the Europeans for a greater role in their own defense. All it offers them is the dubious privilege of paying for expensive American-made weapons which they cannot control, for which even Pentagon strategists can find no military justification, and which promise to make Germany the fulcrum of a powerful nuclear missile force in a spasmodic effort to block France’s modest nuclear efforts.

Nato’s strategic crisis might be less severe if the only point of contention between the United States and the Soviet Union were centered in Europe. Then it might be reasonable to suppose that American and European interests were identical, and it might reasonably be argued that it is in Europe’s best interest to continue relying on the American nuclear monopoly. But unfortunately, the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union is not confined to Europe. Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Africa are all implicated too, and the events of the past few years have shown that the interests of our European allies in these areas often differ from our own. Latin America is peripheral to Europeans’ concerns; our involvement in Vietnam elicits either their disinterest or disapproval; and in the long Congo crisis we learned that our closest allies were most opposed to our policies. NATO, whatever the pretensions of its enthusiasts, is not a global alliance; it is only a pact between America and Europe for the defense of Europe. Beyond that it may have great expectations but little substance.



The interests of the two partners, as they conceive them, have diverged significantly in the past, but perhaps never so greatly as during the recent Cuban crisis. The importance of this episode can hardly be exaggerated, for as nothing since the Suez landings in 1956, it brought home to the Europeans the full extent of their bondage to American strategy and their total inability to influence that strategy. It revealed the true balance of forces within the alliance, showing the difference between power in being and power in theory, and it demonstrated how NATO really works in times of crisis.

To most Americans, the handling of the Cuban crisis seemed at once brave and judicious, authoritative and magnanimous—a triumphant display of military power tempered by political wisdom. While it may indeed have been all of these things, the Europeans viewed it from a different perspective. For them there were two crucial lessons to be drawn from the Cuban crisis. The first was that the United States was ready to risk the nuclear obliteration of its allies in defense of American interests, although the United States would not allow itself to be drawn into danger in defense of European interests—as its actions in the Suez landings demonstrated. The second lesson was that the two nuclear giants would impose whatever settlement they saw fit upon weak third nations involved in their power rivalry.

The showdown between America and Russia was Realpolitik on a grand scale, the most naked military confrontation they had yet engaged in. To Washington officials, their intoxicating victory seemed to indicate that the Europeans had even more reason than ever to put their faith in American diplomacy and American protection. But the Europeans—who were neither consulted in advance nor allowed to assume that they could in any way influence the course the United States had embarked upon—interpreted this victory quite differently: they saw themselves in the place of Cuba, forced to accept a settlement imposed upon it by two great nuclear powers acting in concert. It was, so far as they were concerned, Suez all over again, with Cuba the victim instead of Britain and France. From this point of view, the moral of the Cuban crisis was that when the chips are down nations without nuclear weapons will always be forced to acquiesce in the will of the nuclear powers. Rather than undermining the European desire for an independent nuclear deterrent, as Washington imagined, Cuba only reinforced it.

By acting unilaterally in Cuba, the Kennedy administration did everything that was consistent with the interests of a great power, and everything inconsistent with the maintenance of an integrated alliance. It is not that its actions were wrong; a great power must pursue its interests even at the expense of alienating its allies. But these actions revealed that the alliance, for all the rhetoric about interdependence, is still made up of one powerful nation and a group of its protectorates. Such an alliance of unequals, based upon an outdated political vision of the world, and structured upon the permanent dominance of one of the partners, cannot outlast the disappearance of the conditions which originally led to its creation. NATO is faced with a crisis it can no longer avoid. In an age where alliances are becoming obsolete, it must either be replaced by something completely different—that is, an Atlantic community to which the United States would relinquish its sovereignty, its control of nuclear weapons, and its diplomacy—or else the alliance will dissolve as Europe constitutes itself as a great power with its own independent system of defense. Considering the sad history of military alliances based on external threats, and the tendency of nuclear weapons to reinforce rather than undermine national sovereignty, it seems that NATO is in process of joining that long and distinguished list of disintegrated alliances.



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