Several of the ungraceful preliminaries to the recent summit meeting in Venice stimulated again the perennial media speculation about the cohesion and durability of the Western alliance.
I advise all these nervous souls to relax. I have seen over he past 30 years so many "crises" in the Atlantic alliance that I have stopped believing in them. The crises always evaporate, after some badmouthing and backbitting, as soon as the member governments stop to reflect on what is at stake.
The fundamental common interests of the Western democracies vastly overshadow their differences over trade and tactics. The possibility of a breakup of the alliance, as long as the Soviet Union constitutes a threat, is extremely remote.
Moreover, anything which contributes to the strength of the European democracies, such as their growing unity and independence, contributes to American strength as well. We should not worry when they are strong and self-willed, but only if they should become weak and docile. Even the diversity among them and us has its advantages, since the flexibility it affords permits some partners to experiment with tactics which are domestically hazardous for others.
However, the partnership can be firm and the diversity useful only if the partners understand and take account of each others' needs. Public bickering about tactics is harmful to the security of all. For the United States to lecture its partners about how to behave toward the Soviets, as President Carter apparently did in his recent letter to Chancellor Schmidt, is presumptuous and counterproductive. For the French to thumb their nose at the US and try to steal a march on their allies, as they so frequently and self-righteously do, is equally petty and hurtful. Even though the three governments just mentioned are engaged in critical electoral campaigns, it is irresponsible of them to try to win votes by scoring points against their best friends.
Responsibility, consistency, and resolution should be the watchwords of the Western alliance, most of all for the United States which is still and must remain, until Europe is much more united than it now is, the leader of the alliance. When the US appears irresponsible, inconsistent, or vacillating, European confidence in its leadership wanes visibly and support for common endeavors slackens.
On the other hand, having called for "strong" leadership, the Europeans are in a poor position to complain of "pressure" when such leadership is exercised. Their rhetorically firm but substantively weak response to American leadership regarding the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is hardly likely to impress the Russians.
Not surprisingly, the alliance is strongest where it originated -- along the Iron Curtain in Central Europe. There have been endless arguments about the balance or imbalance of conventional and nuclear forces along that line but the Soviets know that to attack there would almost certainly trigger World War III, which they will not risk. Nor, unless the Western alliance collapses, will any of its members allow themselves to be "Finlandized."
That does not mean, however, that political perceptions are of no importance. American troops will have to remain in Europe until the European are ready to see them go. Soviet intermediate-range missiles targeted on NATO countries will have to be matched by corresponding NATO weapons, unless the Soviets prove willing to negotiate restrictions equally applicable to both sides.
However, the paramount challenge which members of NATO will confront in the 1980s is that unity in Europe will not be enough. The main threats, whether emanating from the Soviets or otehrs, will not appear there but in those parts of the third world which are particularly unstable, hotly contested, and economically or strategically indispensable to the developed contries.
The Middle East provides the most conspicuous example of such threats today. But there are others. The Vietnamese incursion into Thailand in June reminds us that the Southeast Asian conflict, which has lasted 40 years, is not yet resolved and might yet flare up in such a way as to involve great powers. Southern Africa also, despite the settlement in Zimbabwe, is far from stable, as current events in Namibia and South African demonstrate.
There is and will increasingly be need for a more than Atlantic alliance among the democracies, including Japan, an alliance of common policy and action in these critical areas as well as in Europe.
Once again it should be emphasized that common policies and goals do not always require common tactics. The alliance can here also profit by its diversity. Some members can take initiatives, can launch trial balloons, can negotiate, in ways which are politically impossible for other members. They recent European initiative on the Middle East, which may lead to an exist from the Camp David impasse, is a fruitful example.
But awareness of these threats and how best to meet them is still deficient. The US is reluctant to tolerate European initiatives outside Europe; the European states are still groping for an agreed extra-European role.
This is a new reality, however, whose time has come. In the 1980s the critical questions about war and peace are likely to arise far from the North Atlantic. Unless the democracies can act together about them, the alliance will no longer serve effectively its main purpose -- to constrain the Soviets and keep the peace.