Commentary Magazine

After Twenty Years, by Richard J. Barnet and Marcus G. Raskin; and The Troubled Partnership, by Henry A. Kissinger


After Twenty Years: Alternatives to the Cold War in Europe.
by Richard J. Barnet and Marcus G. Raskin.
Random House. 243 pp. $5.95.

The Troubled Partnership: A Reappraisal of the Atlantic Alliance.
by Henry A. Kissinger.
McGraw-Hill. 266 pp. $5.95.

I cannot remember any time since its formation in 1949 when the Atlantic Alliance was not said to be passing through a crisis. For a long time, this “crisis” centered around the vexed problem of German rearmament and the various formulae which might be devised to permit it, while providing guarantees against a return to German militarism. Then the “crisis” shifted to the reluctance of the European nations to produce the minimum number of ground forces which the NATO supreme command regarded as essential. Now we have two concurrent “crises”: how to allow the Germans a share in nuclear weapons policy without actually giving them a finger on the trigger; and how to reconcile the very existence and functioning of NATO with General de Gaulle's desire that American influence in Europe should be greatly diminished, if not eliminated entirely.


These two sober and well-argued books take the present “crises” very seriously indeed, and display much anxious cogitation about their solution. I cannot honestly say that either quite succeeds, though both contain several original suggestions, particularly about arms-control schemes, and much valuable information. Messrs. Barnet and Raskin analyze the cost of America's military commitment to Europe and argue forcefully that much of it is now irrelevant. The cold war in Europe is ending, and the region of peril to Western interests has shifted to the underdeveloped areas of the world, where the U.S. effort is comparatively small. It is feasible, they say, to devise a scheme for the control and limitation of nuclear weapons in Europe which would be compatible with both U.S. and Soviet interests; moreover such a scheme would make a German settlement—which is central to any real reduction of tension in the European theater—far more likely, since it is the Soviet fear of a nuclear-armed Germany which is the real obstacle to reunification. As to the ambitions of France, these are the inevitable consequence of the social and economic recovery of Western Europe, and the United States must adjust herself to them.

Mr. Kissinger's analysis is more orthodox in tone, and imbued with what might be termed the conventional wisdom of the Atlantic Alliance. This makes him, in some respects, much more pessimistic. He is perhaps more aware of the real difficulties which confront any scheme, no matter how ingenious, to settle the problem of German reunification (which he, also, recognizes is the key to everything) and though he does, in fact, put forward a number of detailed suggestions, I doubt if he is really convinced of their feasibility himself. On the contrary, he says flatly, “it is improbable that any negotiating formula will advance German unity,” and he adds the shrewd point that the present Franco-American rivalry has the practical result that “each ally is tempted to add the Federal Republic to its side by holding out vague hopes and grandiose schemes for the achievement of Germany's maximum objectives”—and this inevitably, by aggravating Soviet fears, pushes reunification still further into the future.


Both these books, then, provide useful and thoughtful surveys of the problems which currently confront Western political planners. They by no means agree in their findings, but have the merit of complementing each other neatly. Where both, however, are much less satisfactory is in the solutions they feel obliged to put forward. Here, the sharp analysis degenerates into vagueness and, in Mr. Kissinger's case, verbosity:

History is the tale of civilizations that sought their future in their past. There are no plateaus in international affairs; what is not a stepping stone soon becomes the beginning of a decline. Succeeding generations will not be able to draw comfort from the fact that an unmet challenge was produced by great achievement.

This, to me, carried echoes of the inflated rhetoric of Lyndon B. Johnson, an impression confirmed when Mr. Kissinger finds himself using expressions like “travail” and “erstwhile,” and even, so help us, “the well-springs of creativity,” which, needless to say, have “run dry.” Some of his concluding sentences are quite simply unacceptable:

The opportunity is great. The dynamic periods of Western history occurred when unity was forged from diversity.

But, surely, as R. H. Tawney and Max Weber showed, the beginnings of Europe's economic “take-off” not only coincided with but to some extent were promoted by its division into hostile Protestant and Catholic camps. Mr. Kissinger continues:

This is the task again. The struggles for prestige and influence can be salutary if at some point they lead to a heightened sense of community.

Why should they? Are they not more likely to have the opposite effect?

Indeed, on the last page, Mr. Kissinger makes very little sense at all:

When technique becomes exalted over purpose, men become the victims of their complexities. They forget that every great achievement in every field was a vision before it became a reality. . . . The West requires nothing so much as men able to create their own reality.

I suppose what Mr. Kissinger is really saying is that, despite the evidence, the West must have faith in its future; but this is really no more helpful than condemning sin as wicked. The prose of Messrs. Barnet and Raskin is by no means so open to the charge of oratorical breathlessness; but it, too, descends into platitude toward the end:

The obstacle to a rational world society is not the Soviet Union nor China, nor the United States. It is man—his greed, his will to power, and his destructive impulses. . . . Perhaps a growing awareness that his problems are too vast for either a parochial community or a parochial ideology may help man to come to terms with his trembling existence.

But this is not much comfort in a year which has seen the United Nations virtually cease to function.


I think the authors of both these books would have saved themselves from such terminal lapses if they had resisted the temptation to devise apocalyptic solutions. And this brings me back to my original point about the “permanent crisis” of the Atlantic Alliance. Is it not wrong to talk in terms of “crisis”? For to do so implies a desire and need to return to NATO's pristine virtue of 1949, when the issues were clear-cut and the allies were forced to dissolve their differences in the face of a very real possibility of a Soviet occupation of Western Europe. Who, today, believes the Russians have the slightest intention of invading West Germany or France? And, if this is so, is it not both inevitable and desirable that the Alliance should become looser and its members more diverse in their aims? An alliance, after all, is an artifact, designed for a specific purpose; if the purpose is accomplished, there is no sense in prolonging its existence artificially, still less in trying to transform it into a community for which there is no apparent public demand. Naturally, among the men who control and administer NATO there is a certain vested interest; an understandable feeling that the Alliance is an end in itself, with a life of its own which must develop and mature with the infusion of new ideas. But is there any reason why the rest of us should share this occupational prejudice?

Much of the confusion in which these two books ultimately plunge themselves springs from the touching, but quite baseless, belief that national self-interest can, and eventually will, wither away. Why should it—any more than the Marxist state? Surely the art of politics, in international as well as domestic affairs, is based on accepting the existence of interests and devising means whereby they can be reconciled in a civilized manner. President Johnson recently demonstrated his failure to grasp this fundamental truth when, by courtesy of the new Early Bird satellite, he lectured General de Gaulle and the French nation for pursuing what he termed a narrow, outmoded form of nationalism; while, at that very moment, United States marines were being landed in the Dominican Republic in the defense of what appeared to most Frenchmen (and many others) to be American national interests conceived in the narrowest possible sense. The truth is, of course, that national self-interest is a very subjective thing, easily rationalized, by the man or nation which pursues it, into a specious form of internationalism. When de Gaulle vetoed Britain's entry into the Common Market, he doubtless had no difficulty in convincing himself that he was acting in the wider interests of the European community as a whole—and, for that matter, in Britain's own. When Lyndon Johnson ordered U.S. marines to land in Santo Domingo, he clearly persuaded himself that he was furthering the interests of the entire hemisphere. Would it not be more honest, and conducive to clear thinking, to admit publicly that nations are most unlikely to place communal objectives above their own, and to plan international schemes of cooperation accordingly?

About the Author

Paul Johnson is the author of Modern Times, A History of Christianity, and A History of the Jews, among many other books.

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