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NATO after 35 years - can the US-European alliance be saved?

Question: Can the American-European marriage be saved? Answer: Possibly. But only by an unlikely stronger ''European pillar'' for NATO and by fiendishly expensive Buck Rogers weapons.

This Q-and-A set has become something of a litany in the past couple of months. Maybe it is the right answer. Maybe it is the right question. Maybe not.

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Either way, the sudden transatlantic consensus behind this analysis deserves a closer look.

Certainly the consensus is hard to miss. Newsweek publishes a cover story on ''the decline of Europe.'' Henry Kissinger proposes heading off at the pass the ''know-nothings'' who want to withdraw GIs from Europe - by having the know-somethings withdraw the GIs first. Even Democratic presidential hopeful Gary Hart tries to score campaign points by accusing President Reagan of being soft on the Europeans.

Paradoxically, doubts about the desirability of continuing history's longest-lived peacetime alliance - the North Atlantic Treaty Organization celebrated its 35th anniversary this spring - have gained their greatest currency at a time when NATO has just triumphantly passed a stern test. Deployment of new NATO Euromissiles has proceeded smoothly, and the apparently formidable political opposition to them has melted.

Oddly, too, the doubts are resurgent at a time when US and European views about the Soviet Union - a source of ill will only two years ago - have probably converged more than at any other time in recent years.

In a way it is a tribute to the power of psychology over hard interests.

Certainly the community of American-European basic interests is as compelling as it has ever been: Both want to maintain a military balance with Moscow that will deter Soviet blackmail of Western Europe. Both want to continue the extraordinarily productive exchange of goods and ideas that has so enriched them. Both want the US to remain a superpower - which it would no longer be if Europe's wealth should come to be counted on the Soviet side.

Even the fluctuating conflicts of interest in such things as trade competition and investment-magnet high interest rates are no worse than usual. The two sides of the Atlantic are emerging out of their protracted oil-led recession without having slid into murderous protectionism. The mellowing of Reagan administration ideology - and the electoral victories of conservative governments in West Germany and Britain and of a pro-military Socialist government in France - have blunted the worst transatlantic clashes over economic sanctions as well as over East-West negotiations.

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Yet what the Soviets failed to do in splitting the Western alliance over the missile issue, the Western alliance sometimes seems determined to do itself. The transatlantic mood is sour now.

Americans look at stodgy old passive Europe with some of the impatience their activist forebears felt in saying good riddance to the old continent.

Why is there so little risk capital in Europe? They ask. Why has timid Europe - unlike the dynamic Pacific basin - missed the third industrial revolution? Why have no new jobs been created in Europe in 20 years?

Many an American answers the last question by blaming a cradle-to-grave welfare system that bestows too much security on recipients who still whine that they aren't getting enough.

Europeans plead guilty on their lag in new jobs and in the computer revolution. But North Europeans at least - whether social democrats or conservatives - are shocked, in turn, by America's lack of compassion for the poor and hungry. And they aren't at all sure that a fifth-generation integrated circuit is worth rising numbers of people under the poverty line.

In foreign affairs Americans are vexed by provincial European qualms about America's global military responsibilities in Latin America and the Middle East. They tend to see Europeans as freeloaders who are unwilling to make defense sacrifices, as milquetoasts who are ready to yield to Soviet military pressure.

Sure, Europe may have gone ahead with the Euro-missile stationing, but why don't the shirkers pay as high a percentage of GNP for defense as the US does? Sure, pro-American governments are in place now in Europe, but don't antinuclear demonstrations by the young and anti-Americanism in the West German Social Democratic Party and British Labour Party show that the successor generation is drifting into neutralism and pacifism? Furthermore, why do Europeans always wait for the US to take the lead in joint security matters and then harp at whatever the US decides?

Europe, of course, has return gripes.

Why does the US shoot itself (and the West) in the foot in the Mideast by backing Israel to the hilt, ignoring the Palestinians, alienating the moderate Arabs, and driving the less moderate Arabs into Soviet arms? Why does the US flout international law by mining Nicaraguan harbors, giving a Bronx cheer to the World Court - and making it much harder for conservative European governments to convince their skeptical youths that there really is a moral difference between the superpowers?

Why does the US always seek military solutions to political issues - especially when the superpowers are in a military standoff, while Washington has so much more to offer third countries than Moscow in economic and political fields? Why does the US insist on pushing ahead with star wars when the technology is dubious, the destabilizing potential great, and the dangerous decoupling of US and European defense all but inevitable?

Sure, the allied consultations on the Euromissile arms control position last year were exemplary. But where was the consultation with Britain before the US invasion of a member of the British Commonwealth? And how can Americans see themselves as the financial dupes of Europe when they hike their own defense costs arbitrarily by not having conscription and when they make billion-dollar weapons sales to the Europeans in a lopsided 7:1 ratio?

Most of these complaints aren't new. With the exception of star wars, they've been around since the late '70s. They were just shunted aside in the angrier argument over economic sanctions two years ago and in the more urgent priority for Euromissile deployment last year.

If all these old resentments are bursting out again, there's a reason. The allies are, in a way, the victims of their own success. They resolved their two overriding problems so thoroughly that there is now no outside pressure forcing them to accommodation on the less critical differences.

Thus, with deployment under way, the peace movements are beset by resignation and their own centrifugal instincts. And that means there is no more compulsion for Washington to disarm this antinuclear sentiment by exhibiting special arms control enthusiasm and harmony with its allies.

NATO member states can therefore now afford the luxury of squabbling - or at least they think they can.

For the curious alliance of the American far-right and the European far-left this is all to the good. Both would like nothing better than for the Americans to quit Europe. The American right figures Europeans would get their just desserts in having to pay for their own defense or else get eaten by the Russian bear. And the US could then practice unilaterialism in the world unhampered by faint-hearted allies. Europe's left figures that West and East Europeans could then get on with their own love-in unhampered by the warmonger superpowers.

The large centrist majorities in the US and in Europe don't quite share this vision. But neither are they alarmed by the current friction. There is no discernible crisis to dramatize and clarify disagreements, no obvious disastrous consequences if differences are not resolved.

Besides, there's a solution right at hand, isn't there? All the Europeans need to do is strengthen their pillar of NATO. And all NATO needs to do is to apply the West's technological wizardry to new conventional weapons that can knock off the hordes of Warsaw Pact tanks and infantry fighting vehicles a hundred kilometers behind the lines. The Europeans are already starting on this route by reviving the Western European Union next month. And the various US versions of ''deep strike'' tactics and 1990s' weapons procurements should take care of the rest. With a stronger conventional defense the fateful threshold at which war would go nuclear can be raised.

Maybe. But Europe with its spats over milk lakes is hardly distinguishing itself as a model pillar these days. And there are a few other technicalities still standing in the way of this panacea. The first one is money. The second one is money. And the third one is money, too.

The major goad to American resentment of Europe today is the feeling that Europe isn't paying its fair share in the alliance. And revival of the Western European Union isn't magically going to swell European defense budgets, especially when governments are chary of revitalizing antimilitary peace movements. Nor, despite all the brave talk, is the quest for exotic new long-range weapons likely to alter the 7:1 arms sale ratio - except to make it even more lopsided in favor of the US.

Under these circumstances a stronger European pillar and a wholesale shift to ''deep strike'' technology could exacerbate rather than solve NATO problems. And they are likely to be exacerbated further as plans proceed for any space missile defense that would leave a first-class US protected and a second-class Europe unprotected.

So can the American-European marriage be saved?

Possibly. But only if both partners face up to the daunting difficulties and realize there is no panacea.

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