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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.