Reexamining Our NATO Commitment

Sept. 1, 1981
Our NATO allies were uneasy, back in the 1960s, when the United States began to show its seamier side. The race riots and antiwar demonstrations, along with an obviously deteriorating military presence in Europe, all contributed to a new and more skeptical view of America as the leader of the Alliance. The earlier view had been of a rich and self-assured nation, a little arrogant, perhaps, and not always easy to be around, but a leader nonetheless. The 1960s altered that image, and the Vietnam debacle, followed by Watergate, almost destroyed it. Four years of the hapless and irresolute Carter regime left the United States on a very shaky pedestal.

Now we have a new administration clearly determined to turn things around. Money is, of course, implicit in that scheme, and President Reagan is making certain there is no shortage there—not, at least, for some very big weapon systems. Whether or not the pay tangle—in which the least deserving are too well paid in comparison to the deserving highly skilled—can be straightened out remains to be seen. Until it is, military rewards will continue to be unattractive to too many of the bright and discerning. As for the All-Volunteer Force, it can only be a matter of time until the folly of that idea is generally acknowledged.

But these are simply problems, however difficult, along the way. Let’s assume they are all solved in the reasonably near future, and the United States once more has a disciplined, motivated military backed up by ample reserves of people and supplies. The question that we can then ask in anticipation of that day has to do with our strategy for any situation short of a nuclear exchange with the USSR. Given that ghastly scenario, there is no place for strategy, just reaction. The strategy, such as it is, comes in trying to prevent that kind of war by building Tridents, MXs, and bombers.

Granting a nuclear stalemate, however, there is still an ever-increasing probability of war. The Middle East, or Southwest Asia, to take in the larger area of potential conflict, has become everyone’s favorite candidate as the next battlefield, one that seems likely to see American forces involved one way or another. All of which is, of course, obvious enough and the reason behind the Rapid Deployment Force, a casual invention of the Carter years now being pursued seriously by President Reagan’s Pentagon.

Meanwhile, our main effort, both in money and forces, remains tied to NATO. It is a historic commitment, one that every post-World War II administration—Democratic or Republican—has endorsed with enthusiasm. The question, given the times and the dangers they hold, is should this continuing inviolate commitment to NATO be reexamined?

We learned in the 1973 Yom Kippur War that NATO Europe cannot be counted on for support in any Mideast crisis. The bases we occupy in Europe are for the defense of Europe, nothing else. Similarly, the forces we have committed to Europe are NATO forces. We can redeploy them only over the strenuous protests of our allies. It is, of course, something we will have to do, objections notwithstanding, if we do get involved in the Middle East or elsewhere.

Putting Southwest Asia aside for the moment, the real question about our NATO commitment arises within the Alliance itself. It has long since become obvious that no ally, possibly excepting Germany, is really serious about providing forces for the agreed-on strategy of a flexible response. Instead, NATO is what it has always been, a thin line of conventional forces, poorly deployed, backed up by tactical nuclear weapons and the United States’s strategic arsenal.

While the mechanism for employing tactical nuclear weapons is inevitably complex, NATO being a free and democratic alliance, the nukes have for many years been NATO’s equalizer, at least on paper. Now, with the nuclear modernization program becoming a major political issue in Western Europe, there is increasing doubt as to the seriousness behind the flexible response strategy. That is not to say our NATO allies are ready to roll over; it is just a statement of fact.

If the Soviets were to invade, the allies would unquestionably fight, at least with conventional forces, for as long as they could hold out. Keeping in mind the imbalance between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, that phase would not be long. And given the present and growing antinuclear sentiment in Europe, there is good reason to doubt anything beyond conventional resistance.

All of this, however, is conjecture of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, an invasion for which there is little apparent incentive. Meanwhile, the war clouds darken over the Middle East and all of Southwest Asia, and the United States ponders how it can deal militarily with a threat to our interests in the oil-producing world.

Since our interests are not as much affected as our allies’ interests, there does appear to be one point worth discussing. Put simply, it would be a proposal to agree that US bases in Europe, along with US forces and supplies in Europe, are available for the support of contingencies elsewhere. It is one way, perhaps the only practical way, to bring the Alliance into touch with the real threat and at the same time make our continuing NATO commitment militarily sensible.