The Overstretched Superpower
Does America Have More Rivals Than It Can Handle?
THE Atlantic Community is wavering before Khrushchev's aggressive threats. Each day it loses here or there a little more of its substance and its members increasingly question both the validity of the cause it represents and the suitability of the system which is meant to defend it. When the Atlantic Alliance was formed, the atomic monopoly held by the United States compensated easily for the enormous disparity between the existing conventional forces of the two blocs. Moreover, the Soviet threat at that time was clearly defined. While the problem of maintaining the security of the free world was serious and pressing, it was still relatively simple. Today it has become infinitely more complex.
Obviously the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has served its purpose thus far. As André Fontaine rightly observes, "In the ten years since the North Atlantic Treaty was signed, the demarcation line between the two blocs in Europe has not shifted by so much as a millimeter. . . ."[i] Conceived as a means of protection against a clearly defined threat aimed at a specific group of territories, NATO has been a success.
Today two questions must be answered: In view of the great upheavals of the past few years in both politics and the realm of science and technology, can NATO still be counted on to serve its essential purpose? And if so, will this be sufficient--considering the new problems now facing the Western world?
The accelerated development of weapons technology is responsible for the most fundamental changes that have taken place in strategy, and consequently in politics, since NATO was formed. The loss by the United States of its atomic monopoly at an unexpectedly early date and in particular the Soviet experiments with long-range ballistic missiles have altered the hierarchy of power. Since public opinion was not forewarned of this it has made a very deep impression. Indeed, it is in the psychological sphere that the Soviet success in breaking the atomic monopoly has had the most serious consequences.
The strategic picture was abruptly altered, however, when Mr. Khrushchev announced at the end of August 1957 that his technical experts had launched long-range ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. That event has had staggering military, strategic, psychological and political consequences about which everyone has had his say. But two of them in particular have affected the defense of the West. In the first place, the Soviets have given the world eloquent proof of their scientific progress. Their successes dealt a blow to the complacent Western dogma that science could progress only in an atmosphere of freedom. Henceforth the atomic monopoly was to be shared with a régime whose very nature, it had been thought, made it incapable of stimulating scientific thought and giving application to its findings.
Above all, however, the I.C.B.M. equipped with a nuclear warhead robbed the United States of the advantages of its geographic position vis-à-vis Eurasia. Ever since the War of 1812 and the destruction of Washington by British troops America had been able to intervene with force in world affairs without danger of having to fight on its own territory. World War II took a toll of more than 50,000,000 lives; but thanks not only to its technological advantages and its organizational capacity but also to its privileged geographical position, the United States was able to play the major role in the conflict without losing so much as 1 percent of the total number of victims. After 1957 it no longer enjoyed that century-old invulnerability. Distance no longer afforded protection. When the Soviet Union added the I.C.B.M. to its arsenal, it destroyed the foundations of American "geo-strategy."
Now Washington was forced to realize that henceforth it could commit itself to the defense of other nations only at considerable risk. And America's allies, aware of the dangers she must be willing to accept on their behalf, began to question the worth of her guarantee. If public opinion on both sides of the Atlantic had been better informed concerning the laws of nuclear strategy, and if the policy of deterrence had been more widely understood, the advent of long-range missiles would not have had such a powerful psychological and political impact. Actually, the temporary advantage which it gave the Soviets did little to alter the balance of forces, for the American policy of deterrence retained its effectiveness to a considerable degree.
The important fact was that little by little the American people were coming to realize that they, too, were now in the front line. Yet while they were becoming more vulnerable to enemy attack they were no closer geographically to their allies than they had been in the past. Thus the development of weapons technology seemed to work to the disadvantage of the free world. It served the aggressor, who could boast that henceforth he was capable of striking at the heart of the United States, but it did nothing to bring closer those allies whose security depended not only on American ballistic missiles but also on the presence of American soldiers on their soil. Could the Strategic Air Command be expected to use its weapons of mass destruction on behalf of third parties when to do so meant exposing America to such dreadful reprisals? What became of the indispensable credibility of the American response?
True, this was only one side of the picture. The aggressor would be taking the same risk in carrying out his threat to devastate the territory of his victim. The fact remained that America's ability to act with impunity was no longer assured; and since Western opinion--even in scientific circles, to say nothing of opinion inside certain Western governments--is slow to grasp the subtleties of an entirely new strategic situation, doubts have arisen concerning the continuing value of a defense system which had rested formerly on the guarantor's capacity to strike at the enemy without being struck in return.
These considerations are at the root of NATO's present difficulties. Governments which feel they can afford it are seeking to reinforce the collective deterrent with deterrents of their own, hoping in this way to assure their own safety in the event that a system they no longer have confidence in should fail. The others counsel prudence and in effect paralyze a defense system which can serve its purpose only if it accepts risks.
It is hardly necessary to dwell on the cost of modern armaments. And with the need to increase their range their cost has increased also. In addition to maintaining what is called conventional equipment, provision has had to be made first for new explosives, then for missiles and finally for space technology. The United States Department of Defense must devote more than $4 billion a year to study and research alone, and even then the whole range of the fields to be explored is not covered. Britain was unable to devote more than £ 650 million (nearly $2 billion) to its whole 1960 armaments program, including research, development and production. Obviously it cannot keep up with the swift pace set by the "Big Two." Furthermore, there is the problem of the speed with which armaments techniques are evolving (as the "Blue Streak" affair demonstrated).
Acting separately, even the most powerful nations of Europe cannot at one and the same time keep their conventional forces intact and undertake the development of intercontinental missiles, early warning devices, alert and reconnaissance satellites and nuclear explosives of various degrees of power. Whether in developing fuels or new explosives or new means of delivery, they will always be outdistanced by the Big Two. In the hierarchy of power they are falling lower and lower; their distance behind both the United States and the Soviet Union is increasing. Tomorrow they may find themselves behind still other peoples who are only now beginning their ascent. Either they must be resigned to their decline, acknowledging by the same token that they will eventually lose their independence, or they must join forces and agree to move from the narrow national level to the European level--or better still, the level of the Atlantic Community, as befits the scope of the task to be accomplished.
Although a particular technological advance is not as decisive militarily as it might have been 15 years ago, public opinion is just as sensitive to it as ever. The man in the street thinks that if it had not been for the sputniks Mr. Khrushchev could not have made his trip to the United States. The Soviet Union realizes this and is acting accordingly. If the West accepts second place it will find in the long run that it not only has lost the means of defending itself but also has demonstrated the inferiority of its vaunted political and social system. It is for the United States to accept the challenge and win the technological race. Europe's help should be useful in this contest.
Here again the Atlantic Community faces two alternatives. Either it will remain divided, in which case the struggle will be more difficult and the European countries will inevitably become "uncoupled" and fall behind, or the resources of the member nations will be pooled, in which case all will stand together, each one will ascend in knowledge and power, and the chances of peace will be multiplied.
Another relatively new problem is that of the less-developed countries. Even ten years ago, it would have been appropriate to ask what the richer countries were going to do to help equalize living standards throughout the world. Yet the Soviet threat loomed so large that it seemed to justify concentrating first of all on the creation of a military instrument capable of protecting Western Europe from actual invasion. The underdeveloped countries had not yet become springboards for the progressive encirclement of the great capitalist powers. In the past few years the situation has become better understood. It is now realized that 70 percent of the inhabitants of the globe have an average annual income of less than $300, as compared with a figure of $2,600 for the United States; and the gap is widening, for the rate at which the poor are progressing is slower than the rate at which the wealth of the rich increases. Whatever arrangements are adopted to cope with this problem, members of the Atlantic Alliance will have to dig deep into their pockets for the money to support economic development--preferably as an inter-Allied enterprise. In addition to paying the price for a wide variety of intricate weapons, of pressing forward in scientific research and development, and committing ourselves to the technological race at a cost of billions, the Western powers will have to find still further resources with which to combat "hunger and chaos" on behalf of nearly a billion human beings.
It is stressing the obvious to say that we live in a period of scientific and technological developments so complex and so rapid that they are totally beyond the grasp of the man in the street. Either he is so poverty-stricken that his physical and social condition prevents him from forming the slightest opinion concerning international or even national problems, or, if he has achieved some degree of prosperity, he is preoccupied with his personal affairs. International problems, especially, appear forbiddingly complex. This indifference or this desire to avoid considering matters of public interest may have certain advantages but it is also dangerous.
Both the study and the conduct of public affairs today must be entrusted to specialists. Trained for their tasks, having access to information which is not available to the public, practiced in the analysis of questions relating to their specialists, they form all-powerful administrations. The outsider must acknowledge that by virtue of their opportunity and organization they have the best chance of being correct in their judgments, but the result is that the political aspects of public affairs become blurred. Technocracy takes over. For a long time now the opposition in the majority of the Western democracies has been using arguments which are less rational than emotional; yet it has found increasing difficulty in challenging the position of the government, which has access to information unavailable to the opposition.
Accordingly, the practice of democracy--at least as it is conceived in Western Europe--is becoming less and less easy. The two sides are moving in opposite directions: more and more the governed concern themselves with the fulfilment of their private destinies, while the governors are absorbed in the conduct of affairs too complex to interest anyone but themselves and their specialists. Power beyond the reach of popular control leads to excesses, as the events of last spring in Turkey and the Far East demonstrated. And despite the poor material conditions in Japan, Korea and Turkey, it was not price and wage policies or social programs that were under attack, but rather the political programs of these countries--both domestic and foreign.
Another characteristic of these movements was that young students played a decisive role in them. Indeed, students were perhaps the only ones who could form pressure groups capable of making an effective protest against their governments' conduct. Their education predisposed them to scrutinize, discuss and, consequently, to challenge the soundness of policies which they could not fully understand because they lacked the necessary information. Not yet having the burden of responsibilities borne by their elders, they were quite free to pour into the streets and demonstrate.
The intrusion of these youths into the political and administrative affairs of Korea, Turkey and Japan was all the more violent because there was scarcely anything to restrain them. Between the sovereign, distant, ill-understood State, almost as inaccessible as Kafka's "Castle," and the resigned and indifferent masses, there were no other active groups--with the exception of the military in Turkey--which were capable of taking part in the struggle.
In Korea and Turkey the question of security was not affected, at least for the time being. But in Japan security policy was indeed the cause of the trouble. The Socialists' attack was all the more bitter because there was no substitute for that policy: the Japanese, like many others, have little choice between the risks involved in a commitment to the United States, and the dangers of isolation.
Yet how is the support of the Japanese people to be won if it means that they must share the risks of a defense system based on the possibility of nuclear destruction? The truth is that it is no longer possible to maintain peace with a purely defensive strategy and purely defensive weapons. It is a hard truth to teach. Few are able to grasp that precisely because the new weapons have a destructive power out of all proportion to even the highest stakes, they impose a far more stable balance than the world has known in the past, when the losses and sacrifices suffered in a war fought with "conventional" weapons could be weighed against the benefits to be expected from resorting to force.
Nor is it any easier to make people realize that the more numerous and terrible the retaliatory weapons possessed by both sides the surer the peace; that if those weapons are to be less vulnerable they must be kept in a state of constant alert; and that it is actually more dangerous to limit nuclear weapons than to let them proliferate. These, unfortunately, are the realities of our time, but no one is willing to accept them at first blush.
Where public opinion either has no effect on government conduct or is trained to support its every act, it does not matter whether it knows the real facts of atomic life. But the West suffers from the emotional and irrational reactions of a public which cannot be ignored. The leaders of the Western democracies are going to have to choose between bowing to the public, however unfounded its reactions may be, and undertaking a major educational effort. Naturally, the second alternative is the only one they can choose. It is futile, if not dangerous, to allot billions to a defense policy without making major expenditures for the purpose of explaining and justifying it.
Ten years ago, when the United States held a monopoly in atomic weapons, public opinion in the West demanded few explanations. It was content to know that there was a preponderance of strength which seemed to ensure its safety. That time has come to an end and the position of the West is the more precarious because the Kremlin has exploited to the full the obscurities and paradoxes of the thermonuclear age. Consequently, the difficult task of erecting a defense system which will be proof against a variety of dangers must be supplemented by another, without which the first will be vain: the approval and even the active support of public opinion must be won.
The vulnerability of the United States to direct attack by the Soviet Union, the ever-rising cost of modern armaments, the urgency of the technological race, the emergence of the underdeveloped countries and the absence of an adequately informed public--these are the principal factors which have changed the situation existing when the Atlantic Pact was signed. In short, the situation has been altered not only by the vulnerability of the United States but by the expansion of the means by which the Communist world threatens the West. It has thus become necessary to devote immense intellectual and material resources to problems other than the purely military threat which was the major concern when NATO was conceived.
What can be done with regard to the specific problem of defending Western Europe? There are at least two ways of overcoming the fear that the deterrent is no longer credible. The first is to station American armed forces in all the countries under its protection. American school children would serve the same purpose, for the important thing is to put physically in Europe something so precious that the guaranteeing power would be certain to react as forcefully to an attack there as at home. But such a solution is neither practical nor lasting, for it is subject to limitations which may be imposed by either or both the governments involved.
The other course would be for each country to be able to apply in its own behalf the policy of deterrence which the United States has heretofore been pursuing for the protection of all. This would enhance the credibility of the threat of retaliation, for an aggressor would then have to take seriously into account the national reaction of the people whose vital interests were directly at stake. Furthermore, it obviously is easier to ensure an almost automatic response by an individual nation than by an alliance, in which each member will be reluctant to expose itself needlessly to inordinate dangers. All the members would not be asked to agree to a sacrifice which perhaps benefited only one and yet might mean their general annihilation.
To avoid unnecessary risks, the nuclear weapons so distributed would be placed under dual control. Suppose that the United States puts the weapons required for a policy of decentralized deterrence at the disposal of certain governments allied with it, or of groups of nations sufficiently close to and dependent on each other to agree that they will act as one in the face of danger. The circumstances under which these weapons would be used would be set forth in an agreement between the United States and the recipient nations. If those expressly defined conditions were to materialize, the United States Government would hand over to its ally the "key" held by its own representative. Thus an arsenal hitherto held under dual control would be converted into an instrument for purely national defense. The general provisions of the agreement would be public; but in order to provide some room for manœuvre and to increase the enemy's margin of risk, it would be made known that the circumstances set forth in the agreement were not exclusive, that in addition to the threats enumerated there were others which by mutual consent might be considered sufficient to justify Washington in relinquishing control.
The perils of this plan are less than they might at first appear. Arms such as ballistic missiles equipped with nuclear warheads are of no military and consequently no political value except in extraordinary circumstances. They are not, as some still think, the modern counterpart of the conventional weapons of yesterday. No government can use them as divisions or naval squadrons were once used. The threat to use thermonuclear weapons can be effective only in the last extremity and for the protection of absolutely essential interests; it would not be taken seriously--and so could not serve its purpose--unless the nation involved were confronted with the most terrible of alternatives: annihilation or the end of its freedom as a nation.
The security problem facing a country like Denmark can illustrate the advantages of nuclear decentralization. It is not suggested that Denmark would be given the capacity to exterminate its attacker but simply that it be enabled to inflict enough damage to outweigh the benefits which the aggressor could hope to win by resorting to force. The threat would have to be extremely serious, of course, before the Danish Government could even contemplate using the power which it had acquired through the bilateral agreement with the United States. But, if a missile was launched against a Danish city, or if enemy land forces crossed the frontier in strength, if, in short, the enemy engaged in major operations--at least from Denmark's viewpoint--then it might be expected that the victim, knowing itself to be doomed in any case, would retaliate. Even if the likelihood of such a response were very small, it would still be something for a potential aggressor to reckon with.
What of the responsibilities of the United States? Would not Washington be held accountable for Denmark's action? And would not the system of decentralization thus involve the same liabilities for the United States as the present system?
Assuredly not. Before attacking Denmark, the enemy would certainly threaten the United States by charging that if Washington relinquished control over the Danish missiles it would be responsible for the consequences. But in fact such a threat would be meaningless since it could not be carried into effect; the Soviet Union would not consider it worthwhile to risk exchanging ballistic missiles with the United States just for the sake of subjugating Denmark.
Another advantage of decentralization is that it would put the potential aggressor in the position of taking the initiative in all-out war. As things stand now, the United States must take the initiative in retaliating with nuclear weapons against an attack which may involve only the use of conventional forces and may be directed against only one member of the Alliance. A policy under which each country had its own deterrent power would put the responsibility back on the attacker and convince him of the risks inherent in any attempt to alter forcibly the territorial status quo in Western Europe--or elsewhere, in the event that the policy were extended to other areas.
Finally, the dual control system might check the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Every country protests against them and fears the dangers to which they expose humanity; but there is not a single nation which would refrain from trying to become an atomic power if it had the requisite industrial, financial and intellectual resources. The arrangement would unquestionably obviate a considerable duplication of effort in research and production. It would satisfy both the need to make the threat of retaliation credible and the free world's need to pool its resources so as to use them as economically and effectively as possible for the development and manufacture of the weapons best suited to its defense.
It would be a supplement to present NATO strategy, of course, not a substitute. By reinforcing the collective system with the strength and credibility of a national response, resistance to aggression would be given added depth, based on several successive lines of defense.
The first of these lines is formed by the Allies' conventional forces stationed as far to the east as possible and composed of national contingents under an integrated command. Little by little, the component parts of this "shield" are being equipped with atomic warheads carried by aircraft or missiles of limited- or medium-range. These so-called "tactical" atomic weapons form the second line; they counteract the enemy's superiority and also force him to think about the possibility that an "escalator" process might begin. For if he breaches this second line of resistance he risks abandoning conventional weapons and crossing the nuclear threshold to what might prove to be the "spiral of disaster."
These two overlapping lines of resistance are part of the collective defense system. Washington furnishes the tactical atomic weapons--under a control arrangement--to its own contingents or to those of certain allies. But the collective shield cannot serve its purpose unless there is a complete identity of views among the allied governments. It is greatly weakened if one of them is afraid that it will be asked to assume risks out of proportion to the direct threat to it. The fear is shared by all the allies; each realizes that none is as ready to be firm and resolute on behalf of the others as it would be in defending its own vital interests. But if at the third stage the enemy finds that the country on which he is putting pressure is likely to retaliate with the weapons placed at its disposal under the dual-control system, he will have to expose himself to a new risk. Thus, the possibility of nuclear retaliation by the individual nation will contribute greatly to the policy of deterrence. In effect, it creates a third zone of resistance to aggression.
Still farther back, beyond the seas, the possibility that the Strategic Air Command will intervene on behalf of Western Europe constitutes the fourth line of defense. Some may consider it unlikely that SAC would be used for this purpose. The mere fact of its existence, however, continues to be an important element in the strategy of deterrence and as such benefits the allies of the United States. And finally, the edifice of Western defense has at its core the unassailable and invincible "fortress America." Who would willingly face the dangers with which the successive lines of defense bristle if, supposing he had surmounted them all, he had then to tackle the massive structure barring final access to the coveted prize of world hegemony?
The suggested reorganization of the Western defense would not change either the spirit or the letter of the Treaty. But it would compensate for technological and strategic developments by adding a supplementary line of defense. It would offset the decreasing credibility of a massive nuclear response in defense of Europe and mitigate the dangerous tendency of the allies to drift apart in the face of the enemy's divisive efforts.
Is it possible to cut down the resources devoted to the research and manufacture of weapons without falling to second place? In view of the almost immeasurable increase in the obligations imposed upon the free world, can we hold our present battlements and yet divert enough of our resources to defend others as they come under attack?
For our generation the word "strategy" still has its dictionary meaning--"the art of drawing up a plan of campaign and leading an army in its decisive engagements." Strategy is still generally seen as nothing more than the study and conduct of operations in the field, the shrewd application of well-known principles of warfare to the manœuvring and confrontation of massed armies. It was in this sense that Frederick the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte were great strategists, in this sense that Clausewitz and Jomini understood the term.
In the twentieth century there has emerged a new kind of strategy which may be called the "Strategy of Means." It encompasses logistics but is more than this, for it embraces the development and manufacture of weapons, their disposition, their emplacement and their readiness as well as their maintenance. In 1944, when General Eisenhower launched the assault forces across the Channel, he was far more the capable administrator of a powerful "strategy of means" than a military strategist in the traditional sense of the word. The means assembled under his command were so overwhelming that to a considerable extent they could have compensated for any tactical errors committed. Because so many thousand tons of fuel and ammunition had been assembled where they were needed, because allied aircraft were able to carry out more than 10,000 sorties a day and the fleet was able to carry hundreds of thousands of men with their arms and equipment across the Channel with impunity, the outcome of the landings was never in doubt. Bad leadership could have delayed the Allied victory; superb leadership could have hastened it. But the victory was assured. The strategy of means of the Allies had triumphed over the strategy of means of the Third Reich.
Five years later, however, either the lesson had been forgotten or it had not been properly understood. When the Western governments sought to form a defense system in keeping with the atomic age, they sacrificed everything to the strategy of operations. The General Staffs were to be organized on an inter-allied basis and in the event of actual war the fighting was to be done by troops which had been integrated to the fullest possible extent. Battle plans were to be drawn up jointly and carried out in concert. As far as these excellent provisions went, they took into account some of the lessons of the Second World War. But at the same time it was left to each nation to train, arm and equip the forces which were its contribution to collective defense. Not only did logistics remain a national concern, but also planning, research and development, production and allocation. Thus while the strategy of operations was jointly conceived, the strategy of means remained, in effect, a purely national responsibility.
Yet in the thermonuclear age the problem is to prevent war rather than to wage it, and only a sound and powerful strategy of means can accomplish that purpose. The planning of campaigns that may degenerate into general chaos in a few hours is far less important than the production and distribution of weapons capable of discouraging the resort to force. This can be accomplished only by a pooling of effort and resources.
The priority accorded to the strategy of operations was valid only as long as the West had a monopoly in thermonuclear weapons. Today, when each nation is less and less willing to take collective risks, the preoccupation with collective military operations is not sufficient.
The defense system to which Europe has heretofore owed its safety thus has two great weaknesses: while it serves to make general war improbable, it can do little to resist limited attacks; and it has not been able to develop an adequate strategy of means. To correct these weaknesses, what is now a national concern--namely the assembling of the means required to wage war--must be made a collective one, while responsibility for the use of the arsenal thus assembled must be shifted from the collective to the national level.
Fear of today's weapons of mass destruction has brought humanity to the age of the fait accompli. As the value of the objective pursued or defended is no longer in proportion to the risks involved in conquering or protecting it, the fait accompli must be accepted. In an earlier era wars were fought because a consul was hit in the face with a fly-swatter or a dispatch was garbled. Today an American military aircraft can be shot down over international waters, or, conversely, an American fighter can attack a Russian or Chinese aircraft and neither side can do more than make a formal protest and a demand for indemnification.
Clearly, the West's many defeats in recent years result from its failure to comprehend the nature of the struggle in which it is engaged. To put it plainly, its setbacks are due to its unjustified fears and its acceptance of the fait accompli with which the enemy ceaselessly confronts it. If the likelihood of a Western response is indeed the determining factor in the Kremlin's evaluation of the risks it is willing to take, then that likelihood should be increased. There is little time or space left in which to do it.
[i] L'Alliance Atlantique à l'Heure du Dégel. Paris: Calman Lévy 1959, p. 10.