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.

The cohesion of NATO was first endangered by Carter; and this in two ways. For one, Carter threw overboard, against European advice, the SALT II approach taken by Ford and Kissinger. Secondly, Carter emphatically called on the European governments to increase their deficit spending. He revealed himself as a naive inflationist. Both Paris and Bonn were bound to react sourly. America was no longer leading; rather, it was Carter who was striving for recognition in Europe.

Ronald Reagan inherited an obscure internal situation within NATO. He tried, through drastic unilateral action, to restore the American position of leadership. In this he could count on domestic political support, but not on the agreement of his allies.

So the consensus on the grand strategy was lost. The European allies were shocked, in part by the Reagan administration’s two-year-long neglect of the arms-limitation negotiations, in part by its apparent striving for American military superiority instead of equilibrium. At the same time Ronald Reagan increased his European partners’ economic difficulties through a wholly unexpected policy of deficit spending. The high-interest policy (the highest real interest rates in centuries) dictated by Reagan’s deficits let the world’s richest country become the world’s greatest net importer of capital. This has been occurring at the expense of real investment (capital expenditure), and therefore employment, in the other industrialized countries, and in all the developing countries that do not export oil. The senseless sky-high course of the dollar—touched off by high US interest rates—involves several dangers: a worsening once again of the terms of trade, of protectionism, and—if during the next twelve months the dollar falls again—the weakening of the global monetary structure. These prospects shock every government in Europe.

The United States seems completely unconscious of the economic effect of its policies on the Alliance. This innocent unawareness is reflected, for example, in the cover story in the same issue of Time in which Kissinger’s appeal appears. Eight pages are devoted to analysis and forecast of the domestic effects of the US super-deficits. Of its effects in Europe, Japan, and the rest of the world there is not a single word!

Kissinger has hit the bull’s eye: the Alliance needs a new grand strategy. But this strategy must now include once again the global economic conduct of all its partners. A provision for including such conduct in Alliance strategy has existed from the beginning; it was written into the text of the North Atlantic Treaty. A new grand strategy needs a foundation of political and economic solidarity among the allies. Therefore a new strategy also requires that competition and self-serving interests among the allies be curbed—even though both competition and self-interest in principle remain unavoidable. The grand strategy must also naturally include an over-all approach toward the Soviet Union. The strategy must make it clear that the Alliance’s effort is directed not toward superiority but toward equilibrium. Policies on armaments as well as on the distribution of forces should be subordinated to this aim. Above all, the diplomacy of arms limitation must serve the goal of balance.

It sometimes seems that the often-quoted observation of Alexis de Tocqueville has nearly come true. He predicted one hundred and fifty years ago that America and Russia would each hold in their hands the destiny of one-half of the world. Today, though, there are the many nonaligned states of the third world, and in particular the power of China is increasing. But there is also the military-equality complex of the Russians. This cannot be done away with by over-arming. Nor can the West allow itself to over-arm.

One finds an erroneous view of détente in the West. Whoever accepts an approximate military balance in Europe should recognize that neither the Middle East nor Central America nor Africa is thereby protected against advancing Russian influence. It was always clear that SALT could not rescue Vietnam, Cambodia, or Afghanistan. Whoever claims that these successes of Russian expansionism were caused by a détente policy that, with respect to arms control, was limited to strategic weapons and politically was limited to Europe shows that he entertained inadmissible illusions. The fact is, rather, that it remains essential for America to act as a counterweight to Soviet expansionism in various parts of the globe. Primarily in this worldwide setting, and because of this responsibility, the qualitative difference between Europe and the United States remains inevitable and necessary. For at this level, while the countries of Europe can indeed counsel and help, they cannot successfully work alone or autonomously.

In turn, the Russians make two errors about détente. Moscow has made full use of all its treaties with the West for its own benefit, while at the same time holding to their terms. In regions not covered by treaties, however, the Politburo, without heed for the interests of other states and populations, has expanded its power. That goes for the exorbitant deployment of SS-20 rockets, which the West, culpably, did not try to prevent through the strategic arms limitation agreement; and which today threatens all of Europe, parts of Africa, the entire Middle East, and almost all of Asia. That also goes for the constant, persistent political and military extension of the Soviet spheres of influence on all the continents other than Europe.

This Russian expansionsism, to be sure, was not forbidden by ratified treaties with the United States, although it considerably infringed on international law and the United Nations Charter. But the Politburo was all wrong in the way it sized up the US reaction. The Soviet Union provoked a vital, young, optimistic, “can-do” nation to great new efforts, and touched off a new armaments race. Among other consequences of this development, the Russians and the other peoples of the Soviet Union and Comecon have had to suffer economically.

Kissinger’s essay does not display the author’s usual subtle ability to make fine distinctions concerning the countries of Europe. The European Community is politically sick because all its member countries are economically sick. Britain has only one foot in the EC. France stands with only one foot in the joint defense effort of NATO. The Federal Republic of Germany is fully within both these international communities—but my country suffers both from the awareness that in a crunch it would be reduced to a battlefield and from the partitioning of the German nation.

That is why the Germans are shocked, more than most of the other Europeans, by the distinct worsening of the East-West climate; the Germans had taken détente to be a sure thing. Many Frenchmen misunderstand the German trauma as one of pacifism and as nationalism. The French had taken for granted the role of the Federal Republic of Germany as a buffer, a glacis, an advanced combat post. And they succumbed to the illusion that the Germans, the only nation in Europe to do so, had given up their national identity.

The Americans would like to regard Europe as a single ally. They know that the European nations and states, for more than a thousand years, have been politically and culturally related. But the Americans tend to overlook the controversy and antagonism, as well as the numerous speech barriers, that have persisted among them for more than a thousand years. And they overlook differences in political status: between nuclear states and nonnuclear states; between normal UN members and states with vetos; and, with regard to Berlin, between the powers that have given guarantees and those that have received them. Countless Europeans in Rome, London, Paris, Amsterdam, or Bonn understand incomparably more about the psychological and political processes in the United States than most Americans understand about the nations of Europe. That is why America tends toward an understandable impatience with, in some places even contempt for, Europe. In Europe people tend toward an uncomprehending rejection of America’s habit of blowing both hot and cold.

The US is going to remain temperamental, but it must try to have continuity. Its political leaders must train themselves and their nation in steadiness. Europe since 1945 has been undergoing an important process of change. The European Community—geographically more widely spread than the Holy Roman Empire—amounts to something new in history.

Europe’s further evolution depends in the first place on trust and cooperation between the French and the Germans. Unless both the political and military quality of this cooperation is improved, an autonomous “European pillar” of the Atlantic Alliance (as Kennedy put it) is hardly conceivable. Together, Paris and Bonn hold in their hands the design for that pillar. Valéry Giscard and I had it in mind to establish a considerably closer link between, on the one hand, France’s nuclear power and its conventional army and, on the other, conventional German military forces and German economic power. This goal today is a task for Mitterrand and Kohl. By comparison with that mission, the settlement of squabbles over EC budgets and contributions to the Common Market’s farm pool are routine problems which every couple of years have to be tackled anew.

Henry Kissinger speaks of two truths and a probability. The first truth is that most of the European governments rely much too much on American nuclear weapons, and that most of them neglect their own conventional defense. The probability is that a new American generation, inexperienced in international affairs, could react to a continuation of such neglect by withdrawing a considerable part of the American military forces from Europe. The second truth is that both the United States and the Europeans now put an unsuitably high value on nuclear deterrence. In case the defense of Europe was required, the so-called “flexible response” in Europe would really be flexible only for a few days. After that the situation would escalate to the nuclear destruction of Central Europe.

That is why, within the frame of a newly formulated grand strategy for the Alliance, a reform of the military strategy is also necessary: abstaining from nuclear weapons is impossible, but a better conventional balance is indeed desirable. It isn’t necessary to be able to place in the field a West German soldier for every Soviet soldier; the defender can make do with a certain numerical inferiority. But an improved military equilibrium in fact requires that the military equipment of the French reserve troops be improved. It also requires more British reserve forces. (A country that does without military conscription commits itself either to nuclear defense or to reconquering much later on the territory lost at the outset. Both choices would be hardly endurable for the Germans, whose country would be a theater of combat.) We need a strengthening of the conventionally usable German air force, and more conventional munitions for the German army. Under such qualitatively and quantitatively improved conditions, a partial withdrawal of American troops would, by the way, not necessarily be a misfortune: the Europeans would be playing a role of their own.

Kissinger considers it possible that the Europeans cannot bring themselves to do all this. But he wishes for the opposite outcome, and wants to help bring it about. In that I join him. One needn’t share all his views and all his proposals. But his analysis demands to be taken seriously.

The North Atlantic Alliance must get to the bottom of its deficiencies so that, after a joint evaluation of the situation, it can come to joint conclusions. This can hardly happen before the US presidential election. After that, the process will require several years. Kissinger’s proposal of a group of “wise men” is not farfetched. NATO twice already, in 1956 and 1967, has drawn much benefit from such an international task force.

The European governments should take up Kissinger’s suggestions and go on from there. That would be better than resorting to something like faith healing, and better than begging for better political weather in the United States.

This Issue

May 31, 1984