If there is one banality about the NATO alliance, it is that it is constantly facing challenges. It appears that there can never be a state of harmonious calm in alliance affairs: perennially, either specific problems (the scarcity of money and men for defense) or more general ones (how to assure the American security guarantee for Europe) trouble those who care for this unique organization of Western security.

It would be astonishing if it were otherwise. After all, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is an extraordinary product of international cooperation. Comprising 16 sovereign and democratic states, and accommodating the concomitant changes in parliamentary majorities and political leadership in those states, NATO links a nuclear superpower with global outlook and commitments on one side of the Atlantic to a host of medium-sized and small states with regional concerns and perspectives on the other shore. In its relations with the Eastern bloc, NATO strives to achieve military security through deterrence while seeking political security through détente. NATO’s strategy joins, through the threat of nuclear escalation and the presence of large numbers of U.S. forces in Europe, the fate of the United States to that of its allies across the Atlantic—thus reminding Americans that the days of their invulnerability are long past, and reminding Europeans that U.S. actions outside Europe will involve them too.

In other words the alliance is full of built-in frictions. It is not astonishing that these tend to break out into the open. What is amazing is that the alliance has held together for so long. It will soon celebrate its 40th anniversary; none of its member governments, and none of the major opposition parties which challenge them, desire to make use of the right, available since 1969, to quit the treaty on one year’s notice. This explains why the prophets of crisis and division in NATO have rarely been heeded. Appearances notwithstanding, the alliance has never been in serious danger of falling apart. Its longtime partisans have rightly been confident of its adaptability to change and its resilience under pressure.

Yet these virtues are likely to be tested more severely in the future than they ever were in the past. The crises that shook NATO during the past were caused less by fundamental disagreement over central alliance issues than by difference over marginal ones. The three chief tenets of NATO have never been in doubt: a common purpose, a common strategy and a common defense. There have been times, it is true, particularly in the early years of the Reagan Administration, when Europeans felt uneasy with Washington’s strident anti-Soviet rhetoric; in contrast there were times, especially in the late Nixon and early Carter periods, when Europeans were concerned over Washington’s cooperation with Moscow. There have been differences within NATO concerning the common strategy, most prominently in the early 1960s over the shift from massive retaliation to flexible response. And as long as the alliance has existed there has been the enduring problem of how to find the resources required for modern defense.

But today these problems present themselves with increased stridency, and they are converging simultaneously. As the alliance ponders the best response to Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev’s various arms control initiatives, there is also a new sense of uncertainty over the central, nuclear aspect of NATO strategy; this unease is accompanied by the prospect of unprecedented manpower constraints on armed forces of NATO countries on both sides of the Atlantic. Even for an alliance that has learned to live with its internal frictions and weathered many crises of cohesion, dealing with this range of problems is a tall order. No one who is concerned about the West’s future can afford to take it lightly.


Is there still a common purpose? Do Americans and Europeans still agree that the chief risks to their security lie in Europe? There are two aspects to this dilemma. The first is the one much debated in the United States in recent years, whether the real threat to Western security originates beyond Europe—e.g., in the Persian Gulf, in Central America, in the Middle East. The second is whether, with an imaginative reformer now in command in the Kremlin, the traditional threat perceptions that underlie all NATO planning remain valid, militarily as well as politically.

There is no doubt that Western security is challenged from a variety of sources, of which the military power of the Soviet Union is only one; instability in important Third World regions, uncertainty of access to vital raw materials, threats from international terrorism—all these indicate vulnerabilities which may require some military counter. Yet it is also certain that nowhere but in Europe is the threat to the West as clearly articulated by the presence of large organized military forces; that nowhere is the link between local conflict and general war as immediate.

This is a reality forgotten by those who argue that the dangers to Western security have receded in Europe and present themselves more pressingly elsewhere. For even if the critics of NATO were correct in this assertion (and they are not), there is much to suggest that it is precisely because of a heavy investment in military strength that Europe enjoys considerable stability in security terms today; and it is clear that unilateral reduction of the Western military presence would undermine that stability.

Even if other threats were judged to be of a severity similar to that in Europe (and this is difficult to contemplate), it does not follow that those extra-European conflicts could be met with the kind of military means available in Europe. Indeed, while it is easy to identify a whole range of trouble spots around the globe where conflict would threaten Western security interests, it is a totally different matter to define a useful function for large-scale military forces in coping with such threats. In crises in the Persian Gulf or in Central America the indirect use of force—support for proxy parties coupled with political pressure—promises to be much more effective than any massive military display of direct force. This would be true even if the technical difficulties of dispatching a direct force quickly and sustaining it abroad could be overcome. The value of the deployment of massive military force is highest where its possible use yields the best security dividends—and that is still the case only in Europe (and possibly in South Korea) and not in any "out of area" crisis.

The second aspect is more significant: is the Russia of Gorbachev, for Americans and Europeans, the same as that of his predecessors? Gorbachev is the first Soviet leader to talk of "common security" (unlike Stalin), to abstain from saber-rattling and dramatic Third World adventure (unlike Khrushchev) and to emphasize the Soviet need for international stability as a function of his desire to promote domestic reform at home (unlike Brezhnev). Indeed, if the statements made by the general secretary were to come to reflect a committed, sustained policy, this would be the kind of attitude that the West has always sought: the Soviet Union as a responsible superpower, conscious of its obligations to international order and no longer prepared to define its security interests at the expense of others.

The problem is that even if these expressions of intent are genuine, Soviet power will be of a profoundly ambiguous nature for a very long time to come. This is true partly because of the old tension between announced intentions and capabilities: as the Soviet Union is not about to abdicate its superpower status, its military capabilities will remain a threat to those who do not trust its declarations of friendly intent. There is the further fact that old and new Soviet intentions, while possibly reflecting different aims, can still look disturbingly alike. For instance, Mr. Gorbachev’s proposals for removing all Soviet and American nuclear weapons from the territory of Europe may genuinely be meant as a first step toward removing the threat of war; but they could also serve the old objective of making Europe safe for Soviet military dominance by removing the link between the security of Western Europe and that of the United States. Whatever tests the West may devise to evaluate the "new thinking" in Moscow, they will yield ambiguous results.

Western unity during the postwar period, however, owes much to a shared sense that the threats to Western security are unambiguous. Without the cold war the North Atlantic Treaty would scarcely have been concluded, and the Soviet posture of geographic expansionism, military overinsurance and internal repression is the main reason the alliance has survived for so long.

Mr. Gorbachev’s striking arms control initiatives suggest an attempt to move away from traditional Soviet military overinvestment. He is manifesting the Kremlin’s desire to withdraw from exposed positions in the Third World. And his appeals for reform, "democracy" and public accountability all contribute to a less frightening image of Soviet power in the West. If it were only the "Soviet threat" that held the alliance together these would be worrisome prospects for Western cohesion. Indeed, there are some on the conservative side of the political spectrum who would welcome the failure of Mr. Gorbachev’s reforms if only to regain the convenient, unifying threat perception of the past. And there are others, on the left of European politics, who would like to convince themselves and others that there is now no serious threat to European security and hence no raison d’être for a strong NATO.

But while the alliance was born from fear, it has always been more than a mere reaction to a real or imagined Soviet menace. After all, countries have often shared a sense of being pressured by a foreign power, but this has only rarely led them to join forces in peacetime. Moreover, the concern over Soviet power has varied in intensity during NATO’s 38 years—and yet the cohesion has held: from the height of concern at the outbreak of the Korean War to its easing with the spirit of Camp David, from the fears surrounding the Berlin and Cuba crises of the late 1950s and early 1960s to the hopes for superpower and European détente in the 1960s and 1970s, from the outrage over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to the utopian (and abortive) arms control auction at Reykjavik. Fears and hopes have flowed and ebbed in East-West relations, limited crises have been followed by limited accords, and yet the alliance has not fallen apart. Clearly the glue that holds NATO together is supplied not only by fear but by the member nations’ sense of being comfortable with each other, of being able to work together in the knowledge that this serves the security interests of all. Had the alliance relied exclusively on common fears for its survival it would long ago have gone the way of those ad hoc military arrangements which nations in the past made to address imminent threats.

Moreover, the challenge to Western and European security will not disappear. The traditional NATO perception of a large-scale Soviet attack against Western Europe may need to be reconsidered if Mr. Gorbachev’s ambitious reforms and proposals consolidate into sustained policy. While the kinds of reductions in nuclear and conventional forces that the Soviet leadership currently envisages will never fully satisfy cautious military planners in the West, they would nevertheless render the massive movement of Soviet troops westward more difficult. NATO’s traditional war scenario has already lost much of its former persuasiveness—if only because it has become so very difficult to imagine any prize that would be worth the immense risks, both military and political, that the Soviet Union would incur in such an operation.

Another danger has long been more plausible: that the Soviet Union, faced with upheaval and unrest on its East European glacis, might use force to restore discipline through military repression—and that Europe, as so often in the past, might drift into an unplanned conflict, with local skirmishes escalating into major war. It is not so much the weight of Soviet military power itself that causes insecurity for Europe, as the combination of that power with the nature of Soviet political control over Eastern Europe.

This insecurity may even increase as a result of internal reform within the Soviet empire; after all, it is during periods of reform and change that the discipline imposed by colonial power has been most likely to crack and permit upheavals.

Any precise threat scenario is a matter of speculation, not of prediction. The alliance will have to realize that defined and precise threats are the exception, not the rule, in international affairs. The common benefit of standing together in a period of uncertainty remains. But there is a need to adapt. Just as in times of heightened Soviet military pressure the main test of the alliance is whether it can muster the necessary military response, so in a time of Soviet diplomatic initiatives the West has to prove that it can formulate a convincing response as well. The notion of common purpose will fail if the military threat is exaggerated out of all proportion or if its existence is used as an excuse for diplomatic stonewalling; those are the circumstances in which differences of outlook between the members of NATO develop into centrifugal forces. That is a truth which the alliance understood so well in the mid-1960s when the Harmel Report emphasized that alliance policy must address détente as well as deterrence. It is even more pertinent today.


Thus there are good reasons for the members of the alliance to continue to share a wary sense of common threat. But do they still have a common strategy to meet it?

Officially, of course, NATO’s strategy of flexible response is still in force. It is based on the need to maintain adequate forces in both the conventional and the nuclear categories. Basically this strategy is a defensive doctrine designed to repel aggression and restore the integrity of NATO territory. Nuclear weapons are part of the spectrum of means to discourage an attack and prevent defeat. There is consensus that the use of nuclear weapons, because of their immense implications, should be considered only when other means are failing, that it should occur late rather than early in any conflict, and that it should be directed in selective rather than indiscriminate fashion.

In recent years this strategy of flexible response has come under scrutiny on both sides of the Atlantic, particularly the role of nuclear weapons. Flexible response has always been ambiguous on this count, and with good reason: had it been otherwise it would have caused uneasiness in the United States (where people would wonder if the fate of Hamburg was worth the risking of New York) and in Europe (where people would fear the destruction of their civilization by nuclear war). Moreover, flexible response is a strategy of deterring, not fighting, a war. As such it can and must include a strong element of ambiguity about the conditions in which the ultimate weapon would first be used, if at all.

The trend of the public defense debate, however, has increasingly been toward confusing the central distinction of security in the nuclear age: that between deterrence and war-fighting. As technologies seem to permit an increasing range of nuclear precision-use, the thought of employing nuclear weapons for war-fighting, not merely deterrence, has gained ground in the United States. And in Europe, when the NATO allies were asked by the Carter Administration in 1979 to agree in advance to the stationing of U.S. intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF), the bitter public debate that ensued focused not on deterrence—which, after all, had been maintained for all of the postwar period—but on the eventuality that deterrence might break down.

There is no reason why deterrence should break down. The changes that have occurred in the East-West military balance over the past decades have not altered the fundamental deterring fact: that neither side can exclude, with any degree of confidence, the judgment that a major attack might escalate to the strategic nuclear level and hence to mutual destruction. Moreover, the risk of accidental nuclear war has, if anything, receded with the perfection of electronic safety locks. And nuclear weapons have become more immune to unauthorized use with the centralization of the nuclear release decision by both sides.

Yet we have witnessed a growing conviction (particularly, but not only, on the Green left of the political spectrum) that nuclear disaster is becoming more likely; in the United States President Reagan has even questioned the moral justification of nuclear deterrence, for the sake of promoting his Strategic Defense Initiative. In Britain the Labour Party repeatedly has voted not only for scrapping the British independent nuclear force, but, much more seriously for the alliance, for removing all U.S. nuclear bases from British territory. At the Soviet-American Reykjavik summit of October 1986, President Reagan seemed prepared to do away with all ballistic nuclear missiles within a decade, and with all nuclear weapons in the more distant future. And even cautious conservative Western governments, including the Kohl/Genscher coalition in West Germany, have sought to meet the growing public skepticism about nuclear weapons with soothing slogans such as "Toward Peace With Ever Fewer Weapons." All have suggested that, contrary to the European postwar experience, nuclear deterrence and the absence of conflict are, at least in the long run, a contradiction in terms.

The result is confusion in the West. No one has exposed this more thoroughly than the new Soviet leader. In 1979 the alliance decided to modernize its intermediate-range nuclear forces but, at same time, proposed a second "track" of negotiations to limit the arsenals on both sides. Yet in order to overcome European public resistance to the modernization program, the "double-track" decision soon became a conditional decision to insist on zero intermediate-range nuclear forces: if the Soviets were to dismantle their theater-range missiles, NATO would do likewise. In November 1981 President Reagan, at European prompting, made this his official proposal; at the time it seemed more a clever ploy than a bona fide strategy, since few if any in the West believed that the Russians would ever agree to scrap their modern, functioning SS-20 nuclear missile system.

Yet they did. Mr. Gorbachev proposed just that in January 1986. Since then the alliance has had to define its immediate response and long-term approach to nuclear arms control and deterrence. It has not used the time well. On the contrary, Western reactions to the series of Soviet initiatives that have followed display the same dominance of tactical considerations and political opportunism that shaped NATO’s INF "zero-option" in the first place. Now the Soviet Union has accepted most Western conditions for removing all INF systems (missiles with a 1,000- to 5,000-kilometer range) from Europe and limiting them to 100 warheads in Soviet Asia and 100 warheads in the United States. Western governments do not have a choice: they have to stick to what they have so long requested. Otherwise their political credibility would be seriously and enduringly compromised—both among their own citizens and among their international partners and opponents. That credibility will be sorely needed in the rough times that lie ahead, not least when it comes to reasserting the need for nuclear deterrence in Europe.

This will require more political acumen and courage than most Western governments have shown so far. When Mr. Gorbachev first offered to accept a zero level for longer-range intermediate forces, Western governments still tried to gain time; they insisted that there should be concurrent constraints on the shorter-range INF systems (500- to 1,000-kilometer range), coupled with a U.S. right to build up to the Soviet level. The idea was that if NATO gave up the longer-range land-based INF missiles, perhaps a new balance for shorter-range systems might be achieved. But Mr. Gorbachev again surprised Western negotiators when he told U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, during his visit to Moscow this April, that the Soviet Union was prepared to remove all shorter-range INF missiles from Europe as well. With the refreshing exception of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during her Moscow visit in the spring of 1987, other Western leaders, not least those of West Germany, once again sought to temporize. Instead of defining the conditions for deterrence in Europe, most NATO leaders now present nuclear weapons as a burden that everybody would like to see disappear if possible. Nuclear weapons, so the new line has it, are needed only as long as the Soviet Union enjoys a marked advantage in conventional forces.

What will the alliance say if one of Mr. Gorbachev’s next moves is to propose cuts in Soviet conventional forces? Even a conventional balance more conducive to Western security needs than the present one would not rule out a Soviet attack. As history has repeatedly shown, resourceful attackers can be weaker than defenders and still succeed. Do Western governments really want to leave peace to chance? Or is there, once again, the arrière-pensée that the West can escape having to take its own word seriously because the Soviet Union will not meet the formulated conditions?

Whatever the motives, the result is more than an embarrassment. It reflects a profound sense of uncertainty in the West over its own security requirements. Perhaps Mr. Gorbachev has done a real service to the alliance by not only endorsing the West’s previous proposals on INF but pushing them to their logical conclusion: the progressive removal of credible nuclear weapons from Europe. In the diplomatic chess game for European security, Western governments can no longer afford to procrastinate; the next move is theirs, and the clock is ticking away.

Of course Europe will not be "denuclearized" overnight. Even if all long- and short-range missiles were withdrawn, Western Europe would still retain a sizable array of nuclear weapons: 400 warheads on U.S. strategic submarine-launched missiles assigned to the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR); the nuclear-armed cruise missiles on U.S. warships operating in European waters; the 72 Pershing I missiles operated by West Germany whose nuclear warheads are under the sole control of the United States (which the Soviet Union has proposed be withdrawn); up to 4,600 "tactical" nuclear warheads for use by fighter-bomber planes, short-range (110-kilometer) missiles and artillery; and finally the British and French strategic and "prestrategic" forces. In comparison with other regions, Europe remains, even after the removal of INF missiles, positively stuffed with nuclear weapons.

The trouble with this list, however, is that for the purpose of deterring conventional military attack, most of these systems are of doubtful value. The strategic warheads on submarines assigned by the United States to NATO are a political gesture of very limited military relevance; it is almost inconceivable (and indeed highly undesirable) that an American president would threaten the immediate use of these strategic weapons to cope with any conventional Soviet aggression limited to Europe. The sea-launched cruise missiles on U.S. warships, although of considerable interest to the European balance, are not at present tied to the European theater. The German Pershing I missiles are aging, vulnerable and, given the mounting arms control restraints, unlikely to be modernized. The tactical nuclear warheads, while the most numerous, have also always been the most difficult to justify. With most of them depending on delivery systems with very short ranges, they presuppose the least likely of all military uses—that in the early phases of a conventional conflict and on the territory of the defending country. Finally, the British and French nuclear forces are credible only for deterring a nuclear, and just possibly a major conventional, attack against the territory of these countries; because of their minimal size they cannot be expected to provide extended deterrence to the alliance’s non-nuclear members, particularly not to West Germany.

One does not have to believe in the theological intricacies of "escalation dominance" or "coupling" to realize that, of all elements in the nuclear weapon spectrum, the long-range INF systems—in particular the mobile, slow and unprovocative ground-launched American cruise missiles—are the least expendable. Yet these are precisely the systems that would be removed under the emerging Soviet-American agreement. The alliance will be left with an arsenal of systems and options that provide either no deterrence or only an incredible deterrence because their use assumes a degree of wanton recklessness on the part of the West even beyond that commonly associated with any nuclear-use decision. In its most rudimentary form, NATO’s flexible response doctrine holds that an attacker must be aware before he moves against the West that his aggression contains the risk of escalating to unlimited nuclear war. Once the systems in the middle spectrum of the nuclear arsenal are removed, NATO is left with weapons on both extremes—very short-range or strategic—which instead suggest to an attacker that he may either succeed in keeping nuclear war geographically limited or in avoiding a nuclear riposte altogether. "Denuclearization" is not the problem. The process under way is one of "de-deterring," and this is dangerous for Western security.


What needs to be done? For one thing, the West has to muster the courage to get out of the zero-spiral of arms control proposals. That there should be no long-range INF in Europe is now practically agreed between the superpowers, and it makes no political sense for West Europeans to oppose now what they demanded so strongly in the first place. These are, however, special circumstances, and they must not become a precedent. In general, zero is not a sensible formula for stable deterrence or for stabilizing arms control.

Second, it is time to address the difficult issue of how nuclear deterrence can be maintained in Western Europe in the longer term. For political reasons it seems highly unlikely that for many years to come West European countries, with the exception of France, will agree to the introduction of new land-based nuclear weapons carriers on their soil, apart from airplanes. Hence the option is either to make use of existing systems differently or to introduce new sea-based options.

The options inherent in the Western post-zero-INF arsenal have the weaknesses already analyzed. To dedicate strategic weapons for the deterrence of conventional war in Europe would open up all the credibility gaps that NATO tried to close, 20 years ago, with the introduction of flexible response. To rely more on battlefield nuclear weapons would expose even more the inherent contradictions that lie in this category of weapons. To increase the number of nuclear aircraft would not only raise the old dilemma that they might be needed more urgently in a conventional role, but also emphasize their vulnerability. The nuclear forces of Britain and France will remain, even after their projected expansion, what they have always been: capable at best of deterring an attack against Britain or France but not of extending deterrence to other allies.

These considerations give weight to an alternative that has received little attention to date: a force of U.S. sea-launched cruise missiles dedicated to the deterrence of war in Europe. The Tomahawk cruise missile is fit for both land and sea use, and for nuclear and conventional warheads. Technically it should not be difficult to earmark, say, 200 of these already existing weapons for the European theater.

There would, however, be institutional and political problems. Would the U.S. Navy, which pursues its own nuclear deployment doctrine, be prepared to subject a certain number of its weapons and launchers to the—very different—doctrines of NATO? Would the navy agree to give up the flexibility inherent in moving ships in and out of the European region and subject them to the authority of SACEUR? And at least as important, will West European governments—some of which considered and rejected the sea-based option back in 1979—be ready now to make their own unambiguous commitment to such a force—ranging from providing home ports to escorting the dedicated U.S. force with European warships?

Whatever the answer the alliance gives in the end, there cannot be a non-nuclear NATO doctrine, there can be no notion of limiting the risks of war to Europe, and no alternative, in terms of deterrence, to U.S. nuclear weapons dedicated to the European theater. These have been the chief elements of NATO doctrine in the past. Nothing that has happened over the past decades has disposed of any of them. Perhaps under the impact of Mr. Gorbachev’s overtures, the alliance will remember that it needs a common strategy for deterrence if it wants a common strategy for arms control as well.


The third and most traditional challenge, but by no means the least daunting to the alliance, lies in conventional defense. It poses itself not merely in the familiar way, with one or another alliance member facing temporary problems in acquiring and maintaining the necessary military manpower. Rather the majority of Western armies are now, or soon will be, affected, and there is no indication that this mutual problem will be solved unless addressed and tackled in common.

The specter that many in the West have feared in the past, often prematurely, is now becoming a reality. The major armies providing for the conventional defense of the central European front are all facing what could be severe manpower reductions over the next few years.

American forces in Europe number some 320,000 today. But despite the repeated assurances of the Reagan Administration, which has done much to improve and even to increase the American military presence in West Germany and elsewhere, it is highly unlikely that this level can be maintained. The reason lies less in a change of the American mood, as Europeans are prone to think, than in limits to American resources. After all, moods change more frequently than deployments—witness the predictions a few years ago that the United States would turn increasingly toward the Pacific, that unilateralism would overshadow alliance commitments and that a more inward-looking America would want to bring the boys home. All those currents of opinion can, of course, shape American attitudes toward Europe, often generating impatience with the supposedly "free-riding" allies on the other side of the Atlantic. But so far they have rarely coalesced into hard decisions. When the size of the U.S. presence in Europe has been altered in the past it has been as a result of more direct, functional pressures—such as the Vietnam War, when men and ammunition had to be reallocated to Southeast Asia.

Today it is just that kind of direct pressure which is likely to produce reductions. For the past two years the U.S. defense budget has not increased in real terms and, as the deficit-cutting devices bite, it is unlikely to remain at even the present level. Yet freezing or cutting a defense budget usually has asymmetrical effects. Items such as major equipment programs, protected by long-term contracts (and high cancellation charges), inevitably fare better than the "softer" areas of the budget, namely maintenance and manpower. This means that the level of U.S. troops in Europe, the second-largest conventional force on the central front, may not be maintained.

During the Vietnam years the growth of West Germany’s Bundeswehr could make up for the decline in the U.S. presence. But now the Bundeswehr, the largest conventional force in NATO’s Central European Command, feels the pinch itself. Here the driving pressure is not primarily the lack of funds (although these too are unlikely to register growth in real terms) but the lack of enough young men to be drafted. Even under the optimistic projections prepared by the West German Defense Ministry, the Bundeswehr will shrink by ten percent over the next seven years as a result of the rapid decline in available conscripts. Today the armed forces require some 250,000 conscripts annually. By 1994—due to demographic decline—only 130,000 will be available. The government has introduced an extension of the draft from 15 months to 18 months, to come into effect in 1989. But that will not be enough to fill the gap. So volunteers have to be won as well—and at a time when industry and the public sector will be competing vigorously for the members of a smaller age group reaching their late teens. Today’s official projections, which present the problem as manageable, are probably unrealistic.

And the list goes on: the British defense budget, after a hefty growth in the first part of the 1980s, is experiencing a decline in real terms; the costs for the new Trident II forces will further squeeze the funds available for conventional forces. Although France has just increased its defense budget, one third of its expenditures will be devoted to nuclear forces. The smaller NATO countries find themselves in similar straits.

In short, NATO’s conventional forces will almost inevitably shrink. None of the major nations will be able to make up for the reductions experienced by the others. On the contrary, once one nation announces reductions all the others are likely to follow suit only too eagerly.

Arms control is unlikely to alleviate this situation. It is true that East and West are inching closer to negotiations on conventional forces in Europe, and there are pressures in the East, too, to diminish the burden of large standing forces. But these pressures are less obvious, less immediate and less widespread than in the West. The incentive for the Soviet Union to pay for reductions in NATO forces with major reductions in Warsaw Pact forces will be small indeed when the Western military establishment is contracting in any case.

Of course arms control negotiations have sometimes encouraged unilateral cuts, as the talks on Mutual and Balanced Force Reductions showed in the early 1970s. But today the situation is such that this discipline, in all probability, will fail to impose itself. The West would now have to enter negotiations with the Soviet Union in the knowledge—on both sides—that, regardless of the outcome at the bargaining table, the size of conventional forces in Western Europe will be significantly reduced.

It is unlikely that this deficiency could be overcome if, as some suggest today, NATO were to link the reduction of short-range nuclear weapons with conventional arms control. For one thing, the West would positively invite a Soviet proposal that suggested cosmetic unilateral cuts in Soviet conventional forces combined with a total removal of all battlefield and short-range nuclear systems on both sides. This would be difficult to reject given the present European nuclear allergy and would leave NATO in a progressively inferior conventional situation. Furthermore any serious negotiating approach to conventional arms control must start above all with a clear idea of what conventional forces are available and what they are needed for. While it is true that nuclear weapons will have to be taken into account, linking them to negotiations on conventional forces is more likely to obscure than to clarify the issue—and give hostages to fortune which the West may later regret.

For the planning of European defense and conventional arms control, it would make much better sense for the major allies to get together soon in order to coordinate schedules for the contraction of their forces, and consider jointly what remedies might be available, if any. Otherwise the West would then slide, long before real military changes on the Eastern side so warrant, into a position of marked conventional uncertainty, further aggravated by doubt over nuclear deterrence.

The degree of political leadership required for this coordination would be considerable. So far all Western governments faced with resource constraints have preferred to respond unilaterally and at the last moment, confronting their allies with a fait accompli. This temptation will remain. But in the current uncertainty over both force levels and arms control it is a temptation that must be resisted. NATO, which has set up a series of bodies to look at nuclear weapons and arms control, should now set up a special group to deal with the basics of Western defense, namely the likely reductions in conventional forces that have to be faced regardless of arms control.


Reassertion of common purpose, reaffirmation of the doctrine of flexible response with U.S. nuclear weapons linked to Europe, and common effort to manage the contraction of NATO’s conventional forces—these are the necessary directions of alliance action now. The West is uncertain how to respond to Mr. Gorbachev’s probes, confused over deterrence and the prospect of significantly smaller conventional forces in Europe. There will be no soft options, and Europe will have to share a greater burden in implementing the tough ones.

The Soviet leadership may actually help make up for the alliance’s conceptual slackness by demonstrating that wringing of hands will not suffice. Moscow is demanding "yes" or "no" for an answer, not the "yes, but" to which NATO governments have become so inclined. The realization is gaining ground that a Western Europe that wants to be taken seriously politically will have to address not just the problems of the common economy but that of the common security as well.

This, together with European consensus against the Reagan Administration’s recklessness in Reykjavik, is beginning to concentrate European minds. The new sense of greater European responsibility for the future of the West will be put to the test as America faces the first change in the White House in eight years. For if there is one common implication in the challenges now confronting the alliance, it is the need for a more concerted European effort, conceptual as well as material. The challenges can be met—but only if the task is not left to the United States alone.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • Christoph Bertram is the Diplomatic Correspondent of the West German weekly Die Zeit. From 1974 to 1982 he was the Director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
  • More By Christoph Bertram