Midnight at the Ball

Aug. 1, 1987

Historical timelines are seldom apparent to us as we cross them. We were well into the 1980s, therefore, when the realization set in that the period we called “the postwar ear” had ended in the 1970s. This distinction is more than playing around with words and labels. It recognizes fundamental change from the world order that prevailed in the decades following Would War II, and it carries an implicit warning that we should take a fresh look at some of our long-held assumptions and arrangements.

The new US national strategy begins with acknowledgement that a different period has begun in world affairs, and it identifies several significant signs that the postwar era is over. Among these signs of basic change, four stand out: a decline in the relative influence and power of the United States, the economic resurgence of the war-torn nations of Europe and Asia, the achievement of strategic nuclear parity by the armed forces of the Soviet Union, and the emergence of threats to global stability from the third World.

It is not much of an oversimplification to say that postwar thinking viewed the international balance of power as being essentially bipolar — the danger of aggression by the Soviet Union contained by the preeminent strength of the United States, with the other nations grouping around or behind one of the superpowers and hoping for the best. The world today is considerably more diversified. The United States no longer holds the dominant position it once did. The US and the Soviet Union are roughly equivalent in their military capabilities. The likely sources of trouble — and the potential power to respond to it — are spread around the world to a far greater extent than they were at mid-century.

The United States is still a strong global power with vast global interests. It cannot retreat into isolationism. Neither can it police the world alone. This leads to the inescapable conclusions that the US must conduct its international affairs in cooperation with allies and that its dependence on those allies is greater than it was in the past.

The major Atlantic nations are mutually pledged through NATO to the defense of Europe, and the US is party to a number of bilateral treaties in the Pacific. Even in the early postwar era, it was more or less assumed that allied forces would fight alongside Americans in any major conflict. Nevertheless, discord continues about broader responsibilities.

Japan and the West Europeans, for example, interpret their obligations in a regional sense — and often a limited one at that — even though their interests are manifestly global. These nations entered World War II thinking of themselves as global powers, but came out of it with their homelands in ruin and their holding abroad either gone or going. They concentrated on rebuilding with American help and recast heir ambitions on a smaller scale.

Germany and Japan were allowed to rearm only within specified restrictions. And in the early days, the US Worked hard to keep NATO’s focus on Europe. It did not want the new alliance embroiled in the breakup of European colonial empires in Africa and Asia. These events reinforced the concept of a limited role for the allies.

The postwar recovery of these nations was complete long ago. Japan and Germany are giants in world trade. International stability and access to foreign resources are as important to the Europeans and Japanese as they are to the Untied States. Despite this, global protection of free world interests is left substantially in US hands, just as it was in the postwar era.

The allies, having seen US foreign policy swing around over the years like a weather vane, are reluctant to heed American calls to join the crusade. Their deeper reluctance, however, is in financing of global forces. So far, the US has been willing to dig deeper into its pockets for defense than the allies have, but this willingness is wearing thin.

One nation that can and should do more for the common defense is Japan. Its postwar principles permit deployment of armed forces only in tightly prescribed roles close to home — but allow Japan to enjoy the benefits of a full global defense provided by the United States. Japan is finally raising its defense spending above one percent of GDP, which is still an inadequate contribution from the world’s second-ranking economic power.

Then there is the so-called “nuclear allergy” problem. Some allies not only excuse themselves from global responsibility but also make a point of their distaste for the US strategic nuclear deterrent, which has kept Soviet military power at bay to the advantage of all. It has sometimes been convenient for Europeans to depict themselves as caught — almost as neutrals with no stake in the contest — in the middle of a power struggle between the superpowers. In this instance, we may be approaching midnight at the ball, the hour when the masks come off.

The possibility of sweeping theater arms reduction has exposed the degree to which Europe relies on nuclear weapons for protections. (See “Why NATO Needs a Conventional Defense.” P. 38.) This has compelled the Europeans to take an unfiltered look at the threat posed to them by the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact and consider their options for response. In the future, it will be harder to pretend that nuclear weapons have been an abomination foisted on them by the Americans.

The concepts of the postwar era were good for their time. They worked. They kept the peace. But the circumstances of the new era in world affairs required a different set of concepts, reflecting the changes that have taken place. The United States, as the strongest and wealthiest of the allies, will have to carry the heaviest load in the new era. It cannot withdraw support from its alliances in either Europe or the Pacific. It is the obvious leader of the allies, but it cannot dictate policy to them. They must see on their own what needs to be done and then do it.

It will help if the allies unmask long enough to acknowledge their real interests in this new era and recognize their responsibility for involvement in defense of those interests. Their future, like that of the United States, lies in the mutual support of allied nations.