The Battle Inside NATO

Dick Cheney
Dick Cheney; drawing by David Levine


Beneath its bureaucratic skin NATO is being eaten away by conflict, divided by issues that have haunted it throughout the 1980s. At the end of the decade, as at the beginning, the NATO alliance finds itself burdened with unsolved questions about nuclear weapons. What part should nuclear weapons have in NATO strategy? Does NATO need more than four thousand nuclear weapons in Europe, and, if not, how far can this nuclear inventory be cut? One faction within NATO, led by the US and Britain, is pushing for a major program of nuclear rearmament in Europe. This faction wants to install more powerful “modernized” nuclear missiles in Europe to compensate for those lost or foregone under the terms of the INF Treaty signed by Reagan and Gorbachev in December 1987. A second faction, led by West Germany, is resisting this “modernization,” claiming that it is unnecessary, dangerous, and provocative. These differences are in turn linked to more basic disagreements about how the West should respond to Gorbachev.

Until very recently NATO managed to keep these disagreements bottled up within its own headquarters, but this private phase of the conflict is coming to an end. The two sides are now criticizing each other in public, and one of the earliest casualties of this squabbling was James Baker’s first European tour in February. In the past, as part of the NATO routine, a new secretary of state would visit the European capitals and get to know his NATO counterparts. But last February Baker found himself being treated not simply as a visiting grandee, but as a representative of one of the contending factions. Challenged by the West Germans and the Scandinavians to justify “modernization,” Baker had to start talking more like a general than a diplomat.

This new and more open phase of NATO’s dispute began when Mikhail Gorbachev announced at the UN last December that he would unilaterally withdraw six tank divisions from Eastern Europe. Forced to respond to Gorbachev’s speech, NATO divided along factional lines. General John Galvin, the supreme allied commander and a leading military supporter of the rearmament program, argued that the Soviet Union’s superiority in conventional forces would survive the Gorbachev cuts, and insisted that NATO had to proceed with its plans to install more powerful nuclear missiles. John Tower, still expecting to become secretary of defense, warned of the “new sophistication” of the Soviet threat, against which NATO’s nuclear program was a “trump card.” General Brent Scowcroft, again with the nuclear issue in mind, warned that Gorbachev was interested in “making trouble” for NATO, and that the cold war was therefore far from over. Secretary of Defense Cheney has said that he too favors nuclear “modernization.” (At the beginning of April, Hans-Jochen Vogel, chairman of the German Social Democratic party [SPD], after meeting with Cheney, said he was surprised at the “firmness” [Deutlichkeit] with which Cheney had insisted…

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