Courtesy Reuters

NATO Strategy: What Is Past Is Prologue

Before World War I, German planners prepared for only one contingency: an all-out, two-front war. In July 1914, this made it difficult for Germany to match Russia's military preparations without automatically escalating into general war. Before World War II, French military planners also prepared for only one contingency: full-scale invasion of France. This made it difficult for France to react effectively when Hitler occupied the Rhineland in 1936. Both the German and French governments went wrong by assuming, rather than judging, where the main threat lay. Each country put tremendous effort into elaborating its war plans and force structure, down to the most minute detail. And yet each seems to have given only the most cursory attention to the political contingencies in which those plans and forces might have to be used. Hence the plans and force structures turned out to be not only irrelevant but-because of their rigidity-downright harmful.

These experiences, at which we will presently look in greater detail, offer lessons for those who formulate NATO policy. To avoid a similar distortion in NATO planning, we need to spend some time thinking about why the Alliance needs military strength before we engross ourselves in controversy as to how it should organize and use that strength. Such a review of likely contingencies suggests, for example, that the notion of stripping NATO down to a trip-wire, backed by massive strategic nuclear capabilities, makes very little sense. This proposal, so much discussed in the press, seems to assume that there is only one threat: that of deliberate attack. It wholly fails to take into account the threat of unintended conflict, and hence it fails to provide the forces needed to deal with this danger.


When most people think of Count Schlieffen, the talented soldier who was German Chief of Staff before World War I, they think of the war plan which he produced: the so-called Schlieffen Plan. From a military standpoint, this plan had considerable merit. It recognized that war, arising on either

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