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Saving the Western Alliance

Henry Kissinger has done the Western world—and not only his own country—another important service. Even though governments in Europe and Washington, reacting through some of their second and third-level officials, have publicly raised a fuss about Kissinger’s “Plan to Reshape NATO,” nevertheless this essay in Time of March 5, 1984 begins with an enormous advantage over previous criticism and commentaries. Kissinger gives a case history and a diagnosis before making proposals for treatment. In his first sentence, he emphasizes that the Atlantic Alliance must remain the fulcrum of American foreign policy. I agree.

Only after stating this central point does Kissinger analyze the current ailments of the North Atlantic Alliance along with their components and causes. And only then does he propose remedies. He also recommends appointing a group of “wise men,” people whose commitment to the Western cause is firm, who would be assigned, for no more than two years, to make a new assessment of the policy of NATO, its military doctrine, and its distribution of forces based on a fresh evaluation of the Soviet threat.

The “theoretically” possible finding of this council Kissinger foresees as leading either to an optimal recommendation for the future of NATO or to an acceptable one, or to one that is miserable. It is with respect to the last, the “miserable” outcome, that he sketches some of the conceivable consequences for American policy. They include cutting in half the number of US troops currently in Europe. So this part of Kissinger’s essay ran into criticism—some of it very superficial, some of it unjust. It was seen by some in Europe as a dangerous threat and by some in Washington as a threat that was politically ill-timed.

Kissinger’s critics overlook his justified and urgent appeal: that NATO finally work out once more a grand, over-all strategy for the Alliance with regard to problems between East and West. This appeal is the important and true core of Kissinger’s analysis. So that what he is driving at would not be misinterpreted either in Washington or in Paris or Bonn, Kissinger concludes his essay by stating the goal of preserving and consolidating the Atlantic Alliance, since it embodies our hopes for the dignity of the individual and for human decency. To this reason I would add another: if the Alliance is not consolidated in the foreseeable future, Europe’s freedom of decision cannot be guaranteed; and America cannot afford to have Europe lose that freedom.

The major impetus that Kissinger provides is not diminished by the fact that he has written primarily for American readers and for this reason approaches “the Europeans” as if they were a homogenous group of nations and states. For this reason, too, he expresses in only relative terms his own criticism of the behavior of the United States and its government. Even so, he points to what he calls the consistently astonishing turns taken by American policy. He observes that every change in Washington’s course finishes off some European statesmen who have built their political positions on policies that Washington then abandoned. How true!

Kissinger is right: if one country dominates the Alliance in all essential matters, then there hardly remains for the dependent members a stimulus for serious efforts toward political coordination. Let me add: dependency corrupts—and corrupts not only the dependent partners but also the oversize partner who is making decisions almost single-handedly.

Such a high degree of European dependency on unilateral US decisions did not exist in the 1960s and 1970s. Kennedy had too much respect for Europe, as well as for Macmillan, De Gaulle, and, to a lesser degree, Adenauer. Johnson was too much occupied with Vietnam. The same was also true, to be sure, of Nixon and Kissinger; but Nixon pursued a grand strategy with regard to Moscow, a strategy that broadly corresponded to the basic interests and over-all strategic concepts of his European partners. The same could be said for the team of Ford and Kissinger. So the concurrence between the US and Europe through 1976 did not particularly suffer from the breakdown of the world monetary system, from the oil-price explosion, and from the global economic crisis.

Cooperation began to decline during the administration of President Carter. He confronted his European allies with surprising “lonely” decisions, taken without consultation. The situation was not eased when he made a number of subsequent corrections, since some of these were put into effect just as surprisingly. Carter’s secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, who was esteemed by all European governments as dependable, did not have enough influence on the American grand strategy. Instead, the vacuum in trans-Atlantic leadership was filled to a considerable degree by the close cooperation on foreign and economic policy between Giscard d’Estaing and the German Chancellor.

With Giscard’s departure in the late spring of 1981 and the accession to office a few months earlier of Ronald Reagan, the situation worsened again. The new US administration within a short time changed its secretary of state and two national security advisers. At first, because of its lack of foreign-policy experience, it placed little value on consultation with the European allies; rather, the Administration seemed to feel that its function of providing leadership justified creating, unilaterally, faits accomplis.

Such unilateral US actions concerned both economic and foreign affairs. They were taken without much regard for the allies, and thus the measures undermined—without Washington’s so intending and without Washington’s noticing the effect at all—the domestic political positions of America’s allies. A lot could be said about this by Canada’s circumspect Prime Minister Trudeau; by Prime Minister Thatcher (about matters ranging from the attempted American pipeline embargo against European firms to the occupation of the Commonwealth state of Grenada); by President Mitterrand (whose country especially is suffering from the sky-high world-interest rates caused by the record American budgetary deficits); or by myself (in that I was confronted by a half-pacifist wave of anti-nuclear emotion that would not have assumed the proportions it did had there not been a series of recklessly militant speeches from Washington).

In Europe we were not able to maintain joint decision-making, as had been possible, thanks to good personal relations among Callaghan, Giscard, and myself with regard to various global challenges to foreign policy—from the Palestine question to the NATO two-track decision, from the world economic summit conference to the restoration of firm (even though more flexible) intra-European exchange rates.

Even though Britain did not want to participate in the European Monetary System, nonetheless London under Callaghan was a cooperative partner within the European Council. This situation changed with the arrival in office of Margaret Thatcher—who, so it seems, saw her main European mission as reducing as close to zero as possible Britain’s net contribution to the financing of the European Community. François Mitterrand came onto the economic stage in 1981 with a policy that included not only nationalizing large firms and banks, but also providing new social services and tolerating higher budget deficits. The economic consequences quickly made themselves felt; they soon began absorbing a disproportionately large share of the president’s political activities and those of his government.

All this could be expressed more brutally than Kissinger has done. The European allies as a group were not up to the double challenge facing them: on the one hand, the economic turbulence since the second oil-price explosion in 1979 and 1980, and, on the other, the abandonment by Washington of continuity in foreign policy. Europe turned out to be overburdened. So it is understandable that impatience and bitterness about Europe proliferates in the United States. To be sure, the extensive decline in the influence of the US East Coast elite groups, who were informed about the world and acquainted with history, has led to naive and in part self-serving exaggeration of the American reaction of disappointment. Today the centers where opinion is formed in the United States are Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles—places where not very much is known about Europe.

During the late 1940s and the 1950s the United States had to take decisions essentially on its own, and at the same time to see to their implementation. Thus America developed a grand strategy that sought political containment through military deterrence and that relied militarily on massive nuclear retaliation. In the economic sphere, the US aimed at the reconstruction of Europe (the Marshall Plan) and the world economy (International Monetary Fund, World Bank, General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade). All the same, this grand strategy did not exclude cooperation with the Soviet Union, whether in specific crises or, more generally, within the United Nations.

Toward the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s, as the emerging nuclear-strategic stalemate became apparent, the United States drew two important conclusions. America abandoned the military strategy of massive nuclear retaliation in favor of the new military strategy of flexible response. This was, by the way, for a decade and a half the last unilateral edict issued by the US as leader of the Alliance. The European allies needed more than five years, to the end of 1967, before they officially gave their approval; the agreement was facilitated by the buildup of the conventional military forces of the Federal Republic of Germany. The second conclusion drawn by the US from the nuclear-strategic stalemate was to expand its partial cooperation with the Soviet Union—with the full approval and active participation of America’s European and Canadian allies.

So matters came in 1967 to the double grand strategy of NATO, an approach that retained its validity until near the end of the Carter administration: military deterrence through the capacity for a more flexible military defense, plus cooperation with the Soviet Union on the question of arms control. It was basically with full concurrence among the Alliance partners that there came into existence the test ban treaty, the non-proliferation treaty, SALT I, the German Eastern treaties, the four-power agreement on Berlin, the Final Act of Helsinki, the German-Polish agreements, and SALT II.

During the 1960s NATO withstood three strategic crises relatively unscathed: first, the Cuban missile crisis; second, the crisis brought on by the abrupt and recklessly executed departure of France from the integrated NATO military structure (with France remaining in the Alliance—a situation comprising two factors that were and are quite distinct). This French measure reflected De Gaulle’s aspiration to confer on France an autonomous role as a quasi superpower. And, finally, the Vietnam war. Even the postwar domestic political crisis in America, exacerbated by Watergate, had no major effects on the cohesion and over-all strategy of the Western alliance.

Later, it is true, Richard Nixon struck the Europeans as a man who was morally dubious, but he was a completely acceptable strategic leader of the Alliance. Gerald Ford, who in European eyes was considerably underestimated by his own countrymen, continued Nixon’s grand strategy. Ford never tried to dictate unilateral American decisions to the Europeans allies. As the leading member of the Alliance, Ford was fully accepted in Europe.

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