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US envoy to NATO: alliance working well. But Ambassador Abshire stresses need to beef up conventional forces

One of the prime candidates for secretary of state or defense if the Republicans win the next US election describes the Iran fiasco as a ``bump in the road,'' one that President Reagan's ``common sense and openness to people and advice'' can correct. In other points made in an interview at his residence as an outgoing United States ambassador to NATO, David Abshire stressed the importance of a ``bipartisan basis'' for foreign policy, stoutly defended NATO, and urged a strengthening of its conventional defense capability.

In discussing European concern about a loss of presidential authority following the Iran affair, Mr. Abshire expressed a belief ``that we will remain in an environment of strong American leadership.... I suppose one must assume that in the life of any eight-year presidency you are going to hit a bump in the road. And we're there. But I've got the confidence that with [Mr. Reagan's] common sense and his openness to people and advice, that there are the correctives that perhaps were not there with the Johnson administration caught in the attrition war in Vietnam or the Nixon administration in Watergate.''

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In a point dear to his heart, however, he also emphasized the need for a bipartisan consensus in foreign policy. This is a precept he has lived by in his 3 years as US ambassador to NATO. He has worked closely with and clearly respects Senator Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, the incoming chairman of the Armed Services Committee. And he is famous for the time he has spent phoning congressmen and senators of both parties in efforts to stem anti-European sentiment in Washington and to lobby (successfully) for such administration policies as producing a new generation of chemical weapons.

Typical of his bipartisanship, he named the mansion that the US government purchased for NATO use a few years ago at a bargain $750,000 not after a fellow Republican, but after the late Democrat Harry Truman. In his forward to a booklet about Truman Hall, Abshire writes with deep admiration for the ``remarkable President'' who committed the US to its first peacetime alliance in history.

This NATO alliance, Abshire argues passionately to US critics of Europe, is ``the greatest success story of this century.'' Here he distinguishes between ``the alliance writ large'' and the NATO organization itself. The US has lots of problems with Europe as a whole over trade protectionism and Middle East policy, he says, but the alliance established for the defense of Europe is functioning very effectively.

In fact, fellow diplomats at NATO headquarters also give a lot of credit for NATO's smoother functioning today to Abshire and his hard work during his tenure here. With the same energy he has devoted to congressional relations - and, during his academic career, to the building up the Georgetown Center for Strategic and International Studies that he helped found in 1962 - he has helped give a new momentum to alliance consultations and to development of what he calls a ``resource strategy'' for more efficient use of the $340 billion that member nations already budget annually for NATO.

A prime example of his labors in this field is the shift that Abshire helped effect from what he calls ``the bad Nunn amendment'' several years back that threatened withdrawal of US forces from Europe if the European allies did not contribute more to NATO to the more recent ``good Nunn amendment'' that offered the positive incentment of $200 million for joint US-European weapons research and development. Already this kind of collaboration is giving the US a multiple-launcher rocket system for only 40 percent of the total cost, with the Europeans footing the remaining 60 percent. And it will give NATO 125 frigates for the price of 100.

Abshire also accentuated the positive in looking at European worries after the Iceland summit that Washington might forfeit its nuclear guarantee for its allies and leave them at the mercy of Soviet conventional superiority on the continent. ``I think Reykjavik gives us an enormous window of opportunity'' in focusing needed attention on the conventional imbalance, he asserted.

He acknowledged that European uneasiness about US nuclear deterrence is different this time around from previous waves of concern in that ``we are later in the life of nuclear deterrence.'' Soviet strategic parity and advantages in numbers of shorter-range nuclear missiles in Europe are hastening the day when nuclear weapons will be useful only in deterring other nuclear weapons and will no longer be credible as a deterrent to conventional attack as well.

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The answer to this conundrum, as Abshire sees it, is not to declare the end of nuclear deterrence in Europe ``prematurely'' with a pledge of ``no first use'' of nuclear weapons; the way to ``prolong the life of nuclear deterrence is by real increases in our conventional capability.'' The ``three-legged stool'' of deterrence of war in Europe through strategic nuclear, theater nuclear, and conventional guarantees, he suggested, will ``wobble'' if there is a ``short leg'' conventional defense and thus an invitation to the Soviets to exploit weakness.

It is ``absolutely'' realistic, he said, to expect NATO could rectify the conventional imbalance either by identifying priorities for more efficient allocation of its $340 billion for defense, or by using the leverage of Western technological superiority to build down the Soviet quantitiative advantage by conventional arms control.

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