Editor’s Preview: The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is a collective defense alliance created in 1949 in response to alarming Soviet expansionism in Central and Eastern Europe. Its guiding principle is security through mutual aid and self-help, yet the United States has borne a larger share of the financial and military burden than any of the 16 other member nations, accounting for 50 to 65 percent of our annual defense budget. The call to “get out of NATO” is being heard more and more often today.
Melvyn Krauss, the author of How NATO Weakens the West (1986), contends that the NATO nations have the money and the manpower to defend themselves, but that “they have been able to keep the welfare state, keep U.S. support and feel safe from the Soviets.”
Jack Forrest, former deputy commander in chief of the U.S. Army in Western Europe warns, however, “Our willingness to consider abandoning NATO is a sure sign that we ought to stop and consider just what kind of commitments we are ready to uphold.” He argues that NATO ought to be reformed, not repudiated.
Much attention is focused on how we should respond to our enemies, but the NATO debate makes it clear that how we respond to our allies is just as vital.
These essays were originally presented in January of 1988 in Seattle at a Shavano Institute for National Leadership seminar for two hundred leaders from around the country. Our thanks to the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust for making this program possible.
My perspective on the NATO issue springs from personal experience as well as commitment to a nearly forty-year-old alliance which has played a major role in the postwar era.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is not merely a piece of history; it is essential to our future and undergirds much of our national strategy. It is within this context that we must consider our options. One, obviously, is to scrap the whole alliance: pack up our bags and go home. Another is to withdraw from any meaningful participation or to so scale down our financial and military contributions that other members are called upon to take over the leadership responsibility which is currently ours. The best option is to use the debate over NATO’s viability to our advantage to reform rather than repudiate NATO.
A recent incident may be illustrative of my argument in favor of the last of these three options. Two generals, one French, one American, were engaged in a recent discussion. The American was criticizing the French government for its refusal to uphold the military arm of NATO. (Under de Gaulle, France had withdrawn from military membership in 1966.)
“You’ve made it very awkward for us to properly plan and prepare the defense of Europe,” the American said.
The French general replied, “Well, we do wonder if you’re going to treat us as a true ally.”
“Of course, we’re going to treat you as an ally!”
“That’s precisely why we fear to come back [to military membership]. We remember how you treated your allies, the Nationalist Chinese, and how you treated your allies in Cuba, and how it appears you’re going to treat your allies in Nicaragua and Afghanistan.”
How important NATO is is a part of a larger question: How important is America’s pledge of loyalty? We have reneged on enough commitments already, usually piecemeal, in a series of gradual backward steps. If we choose to withdraw from NATO, we must be prepared to pay a heavy price in terms of our international reputation and our internal morale. It will also make it nearly impossible to attract loyal and friendly allies in the future.
A Real Threat
In 1947, as a cadet at West Point, I learned a great deal about the Marshall Plan. Today, people often forget what a monumental strategic achievement it was. But, then and now, it is clear that the Marshall Plan alone could not secure America’s interests. It was no guarantee against Soviet expansionism and, furthermore, it was no guarantee for democracy and a free economic system. (If entrepreneurs are not safe and free to make secure investments, capitalism simply won’t work.)
The Marshall Plan was never intended to be a complete strategy. Two years later, in 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was organized to stop the advance of communism in Western Europe as part of a larger containment policy. Both the Marshall Plan and NATO came at a critical time. The Germans referred to 1945 as Year Zero. Behind them lay unmitigated disaster; ahead, lay who knows what? But certainly there was hope that great things could be accomplished.
In a larger sense, 1945 was Year Zero for the world. Of the nations which dominated international relations before the war, Great Britain and the United States were in the strongest position along with a new force, the Soviet Union. These three nations had the power to shape the postwar world.
The United States could reward, punish or sanction actions around the planet. It chose to help establish the United Nations, which was to be an improved version of the ill-fated League of Nations. Naively, many Americans assumed that the mere establishment of the UN would guarantee peace and eliminate our national obligations. Disarmament and the withdrawal of troops began immediately. Domestic economic issues turned Americans’ attention inward. When international concerns did intrude, the general feeling was that if we helped the war-devastated nations back on their feet, politically and economically, everyone’s troubles would be over.
This notion did not last long. We were not going to be allowed to stack our arms and return to a generally isolationist stance. We were, in fact, the major world power. Russia’s brief alliance with our cause was over. Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Czechoslavakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, North Korea, and China either fell or came under the sway of communist domination in rapid succession in the postwar era.
The United States protested vigorously, of course. There was much talk of direct confrontations, but to no avail. Winston Churchill came to America and delivered his famous warning that an “iron curtain” was coming down all over Europe; our response was not action, but discussion and frustration.
It was true that Europe and much of Asia were in terrible shape after World War II. Some people couldn’t understand why the Russians would bother to take on such liabilities, but it was apparent to our best strategists that these regions’ future value was incalculable. If the Soviet Union were to capture the Western European or the Japanese industrial base, they would rival and likely outstrip the United States. Such power, wielded by a brutal totalitarian state, was a frightening prospect.
Russian ground expansion was not the only threat, however. The marriage of American nuclear weapons with German-developed missiles created an entirely new danger: nuclear destruction by international missiles. A third threat was the denial, by extortion, by force, or by economic means, of access to raw materials in the Third World and elsewhere.
NATO had a role to play in protecting against all three of these complex dangers. Yet, revisionist historians are fond of dismissing the Cold War, containment, NATO, and the whole of American military strategy as a paranoid response to an imagined monolithic communist threat. The benefit of the doubt, ironically enough, goes not to democrats but to despots. Could the revisionists be right? Imagine for a moment, that NATO had not been organized in 1949. Imagine depending on the UN to keep the peace of the world, to maintain and strengthen alliances, to defend our national and international interests.
NATO has been a success not only because it has deterred war, but because it has promoted prosperity around the world. But NATO, like our entire defense strategy, has serious problems. Much of the criticism directed towards NATO is based on the fact that other member nations have not fulfilled their financial obligations. True, the United States shoulders the greatest burden and this ought to be remedied. I do not, however, think it is cause for abandoning the alliance.
Another objection has been that NATO’s ground forces are not a major deterrent in the event of war. But they have always been considered as one component in a larger plan. As such, they should not be dismissed lightly either. The Soviet Union’s masterful maneuvering has pushed us just to the edge of reaction and no more in many situations. It takes small bites out of a country, landing troops and “military advisors” a few thousand at a time. It prefers to work through puppets and “indigenous” Marxist revolutionary movements and popular fronts. The United States can hardly start a nuclear war over that.
Meanwhile, Soviet conventional forces are improving all the time. Once we could boast of our superior technological advantage, but anyone who has seen a Russian tank lately knows that the technological gap has narrowed and even closed in some instances.
NATO’s nuclear forces are another component of NATO’s strategy and that is why the current talk of denuclearization is so fraught with danger. Without nuclear weapons, as one keen observer has noted, war is once again thinkable. For four decades, NATO’s nuclear deterrent has worked superbly. The Russians have had to resort to expending their military efforts elsewhere, and in a very limited fashion in Asia, Central America, and Africa.
Our greatest mistake would be to assume that one alliance or one weapon or one variety of military response can secure our defense or that by eliminating one of these, peace can be guaranteed. The very real problems which hinder us simply can’t be solved by blaming NATO.
A Matter of Trust
There are other false assumptions about our defense policy which must be challenged. One is that we cannot compete with a Soviet dictatorship which is free to focus its efforts and a disproportionate share of its GNP on creating an unbeatable war machine. Another is that somehow our economic superiority will win out; that if we can dominate international trade, we can bend other nations to our will.
The worse mistake of all is to assume that we Americans are too self-absorbed, too weak, too materialistic to defend ourselves.
Some ask if it is indeed moral for the U.S. to belong to NATO? Our current political leaders certainly think so, but what about the next generation which has grown up in a culture that stresses rapprochement with our enemies at any cost? What about the neo-isolationist sentiment which has gained so much force in our political parties? Publicly, a former Secretary of the Navy has referred to the United States as “an island nation,” suggesting that we follow 18th-century Britain’s example of relying on a super-fleet to defend our shores and protect our interests abroad. Our willingness to consider abandoning NATO is a sure sign that we ought to stop and consider just what kind of commitments we are ready to uphold.
True, Western Europe and the rest of our allies ought to have the courage to pull themselves together, to depend upon themselves rather than us. They ought to be able to coordinate their own defense. Certainly they have the potential to do so. But it simply won’t happen. They lack the raw materials, the up-to-date industrial base, and, most of all, the necessary mutual trust. Can you imagine the French government saying, “Okay, the Germans can be in command” Or vice versa?
Whatever quarrels various nations may have with us, however often one hears “Yankee Go Home,” our allies trust the United States to a far greater degree than any other nation. Ought we betray that trust?
When everything is said and done—when the Left has expressed its genuine fear that a trigger-happy America will make Europe the first casualty in a nuclear war, and when the Right has wondered about the times we have backed away from direct confrontations with the Soviets in Eastern Europe, Afghanistan and Central America—that trust still survives.
Unquestionably, we ought to take a good hard look at NATO; we ought to press for substantial and meaningful reforms, and not just because it makes good strategic sense: We are an ethical people with a moral vision which shapes our entire way of life, including our foreign policy and our defense. We know that peacemaking is blessed and that “if good men fail to act, evil will succeed.” We have paid a great price in human lives over the years in order to live up to that demanding vision, and we must do everything in our power to make sure those lives were not lost in vain.