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The Crisis in the West


Six months after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, seven months after the seizure of American hostages in Iran, American foreign policy is faced with a protracted, often acrimonious crisis with its European allies, and stuck in a deadlock with its chief rival. And the choices that confront the US seem to be either more of the same, or far worse.

The Atlantic alliance has never been smooth. Its structure alone generates trouble. It is an alliance between one preponderant state and a number of middle and small powers, several of which are engaged—on the side, so to speak—in an experiment in economic integration and political cooperation of their own. Consultation has always been a headache; it works best when all are in agreement, i.e., when it is least necessary. Let us only remember the interminable inter-allied battle over West German rearmament, which derailed European integration, and the Suez crisis.

There are substantive reasons for trouble as well. Dependence on the American nuclear guarantee and on the presence of American forces in Europe breeds as many doubts and fears as it gives assurances. Separated from the United States by an ocean, from the Soviet Union merely by an iron curtain, the Western Europeans have always been anxious about American intentions and actions. They have oscillated between the fear of being drawn into a world war by American imprudence and the fear of being abandoned, or—worse still—of being “defended” in a conventional war that would destroy Europe while sparing the two superpowers.

The economic recovery of the Western European half-continent has pointed up the sharp contrast between European success in industry and trade and European military dependence on the US; the intense economic interdependence between Europe and the United States has created mutual dissatisfaction over monetary practices (remember America’s indignation toward de Gaulle’s conversion of dollars into gold, and more recently Bonn’s anger against Carter’s failure to stop the decline of the dollar in 1977-1978) and over economic policies (each side counting on the other for the preservation of a high level of growth).

Finally, Western Europe’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil has contributed to the alliance’s troubles, both because it has introduced an element of economic dependence on the United States’ behavior—America’s rising oil imports and the slide of the dollar having strengthened the hand of OPEC and led to new price increases—and because it has made the Europeans more sensitive than Washington to the political desiderata of the Arab countries.

To these permanent sources of tension, new ones have been added by three sets of recent changes. The first is the evolution of the foreign policies of Paris, Bonn, and London in the 1970s. The “big three” of Western Europe have sought a foreign policy that would give them the best of all possible worlds. West Germany has moved from total reliance on Washington for defense and diplomacy, and dependence on its Western European partners for moral rehabilitation, to the successful liquidation of its own special Eastern problems (Berlin, the Oder-Neisse line, the issue of partition) and to a preponderant financial position in the European Community. France has moved from de Gaulle’s fierce pursuit of independence from Washington (under the American nuclear umbrella) to a complex policy of military autonomy with collaboration with NATO, détente with activism in Africa, Middle Eastern oil deals with a coherent national energy policy. Britain has moved from its “special relations” with Washington and the Commonwealth to contentious membership in the EEC.

These shifts have had two results. In Bonn and Paris, the link with Moscow has become a major factor both in foreign (and foreign economic) policy and in domestic politics—not because of “Eurocommunism,” which never existed in Germany or in France where the communist range of policies extends only from pro-Soviet to chauvinistic, but within the governing coalitions themselves. In Bonn, Paris, and London, there has been a certain detachment from the United States. In the case of Bonn (remember when a distinguished American economist talked of German-American “bi-gemony”?) this is because of dismay at Washington’s economic policies and the absence of a consistent détente strategy. In France’s case, it is because of traditional suspicions as well as new irritations (Carter being deemed too passive and soft in Africa, too passive and slow in the Middle East); in the case of Britain, because of the need to prove oneself a “good European.”

But there are also reasons for estrangement which exist on both sides of the Atlantic. One is a change in generations. The trans-Atlantic elite which governed in the days of John McCloy, Robert Bowie, Jean Monnet, and Walter Hallstein is gone, replaced by men who, on the European side, are much busier dealing with one another than with Washington, and on the American side have lost their early enthusiasm for or faith in European integration.

The second common reason is mutual exasperation with one another’s political system. The Americans find it hard to deal with allies who are, simultaneously, crotchety separate states and partners in a formidably complex community-building enterprise—one in which foreign policy coordination and economic (including foreign economic) policy integration are handled separately. As for the Europeans, they have been watching the American political scene with increasing bewilderment. The cascade of interrupted or failed presidencies, the rivalries within the foreign policy making process in the executive branch, the revolt and frequently destructive interventions of Congress, the dismal spectacle of the presidential campaigns, the apparent mediocrity of the political personnel, the broad swings of public opinion, have been deplored, but neither perceptively analyzed nor understood.

A second set of changes consists in the increasing importance, for the alliance, of crises that arise outside the geographical zone covered by the North Atlantic treaty. Such crises—with the exception of the Cuban missile crisis—have always spelled trouble: Korea, Suez, Vietnam, the October war, etc. But these were discrete events, or—again with the exception of the Cuban missile crisis—at least they did not threaten to turn into major superpower conflagrations (by 1973, for instance, Washington and Moscow had learned how to defuse the Arab-Israeli war). In the Persian Gulf, where the two current conflicts have broken out, the Europeans fear that their two biggest nightmares might merge: the nightmare of a cutoff of oil supplies and the nightmare of a Soviet-American armed struggle into which they would be dragged. Thus, the peril is much greater than before. Here is a region of vital interest to the West and to Japan, yet equally important to the USSR—just like Europe; but unlike Europe, it is also a region in which the USSR enjoys enormous military advantages, and where what might be called the NATO formula—compensating for a conventional imbalance by a clear link between the West’s conventional and its nuclear forces—would not be a sufficient deterrent, since the Soviets also enjoy opportunities that do not depend on military aggression, but consist in the exploitation of social unrest, ethnic conflicts, and political instability—opportunities entirely absent in Western Europe.

And yet the alliance’s machinery simply does not work well for such extra-European predicaments. In 1958, Eisenhower rejected de Gaulle’s idea of a French-British-American directory to define policies and strategy outside the NATO sphere, and Washington has never since been any more eager to share decisions, while frequently calling for a sharing of burdens (as in Kissinger’s famous “Year of Europe” speech in April 1973).

A third set of changes lies in what could be called the alliance’s crisis of pluralism. In the 1960s, de Gaulle could snipe at American power and try to deflate it a bit; there was no doubt about Washington’s preponderance both in the alliance and—after the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962—over Moscow. Before the missile crisis, de Gaulle, always watchful of the world balance of power, had been more “hard-line” toward Khrushchev than the Americans had been. But there has been a change both in the respective power positions and in the respective interests of the Americans and the Europeans.

Concerning power, America’s predominance has declined (with respect to the Soviets, to OPEC, and, economically, to Western Europe and Japan); and America’s still considerable power cannot be said to have been brilliantly managed by the Carter administration. Western Europe, on the other hand, has broadened its concerns, and begun to behave more like an entity; there is now a common foreign economic policy, an important series of agreements with many developing countries in Africa, the Pacific, and the Caribbean, and an incipient common foreign policy. In the Sixties, except for the French, the other Europeans always consulted Washington before taking diplomatic stands (and they abstained from taking any when Washington disapproved). This is no longer the case. Western Europe also has some impressive leaders. Yet it cannot replace the United States as the dominant power in the alliance because of a lack of military resources, dependency on oil imports, and the persistent imperfections of cooperation among the Nine (shockingly illustrated by Britain’s recent aboutface on sanctions against Iran, a result of Parliament’s revolt, and by Giscard’s futile journey to Warsaw, in flagrant contradiction to his own goal of fostering greater foreign policy unity among the Europeans).

The deepest reason for Europe’s inability to lead is, however, a certain habituation to dependence, a cozy belief that the risks and responsibilities of world politics belong to Washington alone, a failure of will and a shrinking of ambition which create a gap, not, as Kissinger once said, between America’s “global” interests and Europe’s “regional” ones, but between Europe’s world-wide concern and its timidity of ambition. Thus there is a formidable crisis of leadership: Washington’s is handicapped, Western Europe’s is reluctant or absent. The European habit of criticizing America still flourishes; but recriminations are now more destructive, given the change in power and the divergence of interests.

This divergence is manifest precisely in the two nightmare realms I have mentioned. One is East-West relations. The United States and its allies have all practiced détente, but the Europeans have traveled on a different road. On the one hand, the Europeans have gone much farther in the direction of economic and humanitarian exchanges, as in the reuniting of Eastern Europeans with their families in West Germany. Détente has thus created a network of interests, tying the Western Europeans not only to Moscow but also to the Eastern Europeans (and in Bonn’s case, particularly to the East Germans). It has also given both the Western Europeans and several of the Eastern European countries some greater leeway, either in world affairs or in domestic politics, alleviating the burden of their respective Big Brothers’ preponderance, and allowing the EEC countries to pay more attention to North-South relations. Hence there is on the part of most of the Western Europeans a strong desire to protect their newly won turf and to limit whatever damage the eagle and the bear could inflict on it.

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