Is NATO stumbling toward impotence, sliding back to business as usual or being dragged to the brink of peace? A gambler would be hard-pressed to call the odds. In the wake of the signing of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty and President Mikhail Gorbachev's announced unilateral plan to withdraw Soviet forces from Eastern Europe, various observers argue the first and the last of these alternatives. The middle one, the more prosaic of the possibilities, has been underestimated. Far more than is admitted by many breathless commentators worried about the implications of the INF treaty, there are powerful reasons to expect no essential change in the constitution or operation of the alliance.

Continuity remains the best bet for the alliance's future course, although the odds of things remaining constant are the lowest in several decades. As it approaches middle age, the alliance finds itself near a turning point, confronting forces that could alter its basic terms of reference. Surprisingly, the most significant of these divisive forces are not changes in the balance of military power or collapse of NATO's internal consensus-the problems that excited the most worry among traditional Western elites and strategists after the INF agreement was announced. Rather they are political initiatives from Moscow that raise unprecedented possibilities for negotiated change in the East-West military confrontation. The INF treaty is more significant for how it reflects Moscow's new stance than for how it changes the quality of NATO's deterrent. The Soviets continue to confound us by giving "yes" for an answer.

For the foreseeable future it is virtually inevitable that the West will remain the reactive side. None of the leaders in the principal countries of the alliance are as politically radical, visionary or adventurous as Gorbachev. NATO is also a genuine coalition of fractious democracies, with all the attendant obstacles to rapid decisions and major changes of course.

The challenge for NATO now is how to keep itself in shape while reacting sensibly to Soviet initiatives. Keeping in shape means avoiding damage to the organization's military position, which could be squeezed between zealous hawks forcing too much attention on controversial strategic problems and enthusiastic doves arguing that excessive devotion to deterrence or defense will block peace rather than guard it.


What is most remarkable about the Atlantic alliance is its durability and success. NATO has lasted 40 years with no failure in its mission of deterring Soviet aggression and negligible change in the number and commitment of its members. Episodic controversies about strategic doctrine have agitated the organization but have done no mortal damage. Professional strategists or diplomats often wring their hands about events or trends that suggest disarray, but considering the difficulties that history would lead us to expect in a collaboration of so many states over so long a time on so momentous a matter, these problems have been surprisingly well managed.

The alliance is also quite institutionalized. Its structure and consultative process have been thoroughly bureaucratized, and declarations of shared interests, objectives and commitment to cooperation have been ritualized. All of this creates a brake against change in the face of occasional diplomatic or strategic strains. Just as this powerful inertia makes it difficult to mount a lasting collective push to fix long-standing problems in military posture, it also makes it hard for strains to break up the alliance. Pure strategists see this as cold comfort, but it is important to remember that the breadth and solidarity of alliance membership are the source of far more of its military power than is any particular weapon deployment or incremental boost in defense spending.

Much of the reason for such continuity has been the essential stability of the East-West conflict in Europe. The bipolar division of the continent established extraordinary clarity and balance in the East-West confrontation. The apparent Soviet threat remained both constant and, with the exception of the months after the outbreak of the Korean War and the three Berlin crises, moderate. It never receded far enough to make the purpose of the alliance dubious, yet it never became acute enough to put the organization to a real test of whether it could hold together in the face of war. The last serious challenge, the third Berlin crisis, is now well over a quarter-century in the past.

This stability is coming into doubt. Gorbachev's initiatives have opened a Pandora's box of possibilities for change both within the Soviet empire and in relations between East and West. It is hard to overstate how radical and astounding to conventional wisdom recent Soviet developments are-or how risky they could turn out to be.

Gorbachev's political adventurism could succeed, fizzle or boomerang. The major forces of change he has unleashed may ultimately prove beyond Moscow's capacity to control. One possibility, at the extreme, is the eventual resolution of the East-West confrontation in Europe. It is foolish to bank yet on the coming of this millennium, but it is equally foolish to write off current Soviet moves as a grand, ingenious disinformation campaign.

It also helps to rethink the basics that NATO's happy inertia has encouraged us to forget. First, no alliance lasts forever; it can only hope to outlive the threat that inspired it. The original rationale for containment in the late 1940s was that it would be a temporary policy to keep the U.S.S.R. within bounds until it "mellowed." If NATO is not to expire before the Soviet threat does, it will have to recognize the point at which Moscow has mellowed sufficiently and conditions are ripe for resolving the animating conflict. Second, nuclear deterrence is the least unsatisfactory way to underwrite stability in the East-West military confrontation, but it too cannot last forever. It may work for fifty or even a hundred years, but eventually something is likely to go wrong. The best hope is to find a way out of the political conflict sometime before that happens.

There is no way to recognize and accept Soviet mellowing without risk. There would be no problem only if Gorbachev were to preside over military demobilization in the U.S.S.R., disestablish the Communist Party and run up the white flag over the Kremlin. Short of such abject surrender, Western leaders will have to make risky judgments about how far to go in accommodating a threat that is still hefty, despite political retreat or military decline, either of which could prove temporary.

There is a more troublesome prospect, which only the surprising radicalism of recent events in the U.S.S.R. raises from the fanciful to the possible. That prospect is that events which might be construed as success in terms of NATO's principal values, indeed success beyond Western statesmen's wildest dreams, could turn out to be quite dangerous to Western security. One such event would be the collapse of the Soviet empire; another would be the collapse of the Soviet Communist Party. Though neither possibility is yet probable, neither is any longer in the realm of futuristic fantasy.

Real independence of the East European countries must be desired by the West, but it would challenge the bipolar stability that has characterized Europe since 1945. It need not produce disorder of the sort we think of when recalling the origins of World War I, nor would it have to revivify the German Problem, nor would it necessarily remove the rationale for peacetime engagement of American military power in Europe. There would be much less blocking the paths to all three such hypothetical developments, however, and any one of these would make Europe more dangerous than it has been since World War II.

If glasnost proceeds to the point that the legitimacy, cohesion or authority of the Soviet Communist Party becomes too damaged to recover and real political pluralism takes over, nothing automatically ordains that liberalism will replace Leninism. Bad anticommunists benefit from glasnost as well as good ones. Especially if glasnost gets out of control while perestroika fails, discrediting both Marxist and Western capitalist models, it is not impossible to envision the rise of a nasty, xenophobic nationalism, or even some Russian variant of fascism. That could be the worst case, making us all nostalgic for the good old days of communism.

In the face of all these uncertainties NATO needs enough flexibility to negotiate, but it also must keep its powder dry. For the most part this will entail resisting impulses to further change in the theater nuclear realm and overcoming barriers to change in the conventional military arena.


A specter is haunting Europe, the specter of denuclearization. Some on the political left of center welcome the possibility that military doctrines and forces could be compelled to rely less on escalation, but the traditional mainstream of elite thinking sees such a development as only serving Soviet interests. The strategists most frightened by the specter of denuclearization, however, sound more like Chicken Littles than like sober hawks. They exaggerate how novel the crisis of faith in nuclear doctrine is, and by trumpeting aspects of the problem that cannot be fixed they risk making it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What too many alarmists fail to appreciate is that the specter did not arrive with the INF treaty, but has been prominent for thirty years. Long ago, critics agonized that the emergence of Soviet retaliatory power made reliance on nuclear escalation suicidal, unbelievable and therefore strategically foolish. Some clung to U.S. superiority, despite Soviet capacity to inflict unacceptable damage, as salvation for the logic of NATO's doctrine. But that prop was gone by the beginning of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) twenty years ago. Compared to those fundamental changes, recent fiddling with theater nuclear forces has not added a remarkable amount to the difficulty of maintaining a veneer of rationalism over NATO's strategic doctrine.

Criticism of the INF treaty hinges mainly on the subjective argument that it removes a symbolic linkage between the tactical and strategic levels of the U.S. commitment to nuclear escalation. NATO managed quite well without medium-range nuclear forces for most of its history; such weapons were actually operational for only a few years. No gap in capacity to cover targets and execute wartime missions accounted for NATO's December 1979 dual-track decision to deploy medium-range missiles (Pershing 2s and GLCMs), and the treaty actually removes hundreds of Soviet targets (SS-20s). The only option compromised is that of short-warning NATO attack on command and control facilities in the western U.S.S.R., an option Moscow feared, but which was no part of the motivation for the deployment decision. When critics fret about symbolic rather than substantive military problems they do more to degrade deterrence gratuitously than to guard it. If the military balance matters, why not revel in the concrete military advantages offered by the accord?

In objective terms the treaty bolsters the credibility of flexible response in four appreciable ways:

-Soviet deployment of new SS-20 missiles in the 1970s was allegedly much of the reason that Pershing 2s and GLCMs were needed. But not only did the INF treaty get rid of all those SS-20s (as well as ones outside Europe), it took out all the other intermediate-range forces that the Soviets had deployed since the 1950s-many hundreds of SS-4s and SS-5s.

-The actual effect of treaty reductions on the balance of forces is roughly four to one in NATO's favor, in terms of warheads.

-In leaving French and British nuclear forces unconstrained, the treaty gives the Western alliance an additional edge in total weapons targeted against the Soviet interior. Moscow now has to counter the strategic forces of four separate countries (the United States, Britain, France, China) with its long-range forces, while at least three of those countries can concentrate their forces single-mindedly on the U.S.S.R.

-The treaty leaves unmolested several thousand U.S. tactical nuclear weapons on the ground in Europe. There have been significant reductions in that stockpile, but not because any treaty required them.

The INF treaty could turn out to have a more destructive effect, however, if it creates a momentum toward more far-reaching removal of tactical nuclear weapons. There is no reason that this need happen. By slaking the political thirst in the West for some sort of diplomatic progress, the treaty should reduce the clout of those willing to take risks for arms control, relative to that of those preaching caution. Negotiations for ambitious reductions of intercontinental forces also push further initiatives for theater nuclear arms control off center stage.

Some argue that a Strategic Arms Reduction Talks treaty, especially after the experience of the Reykjavik summit, will spur the delegitimation of nuclear weapons. It is certainly true that, given the probable psychological effect, the radical reductions of a START treaty will do nothing to help flexible response. Objectively, however, it is not clear why parity at half the current number of launchers is worse for flexible response than parity at the level of SALT I. The terms of the emergent START treaty are likely to leave us with about fifty percent more warheads than we had when SALT I was concluded. (Since the tentative accord reportedly undercounts bomber weapons by a large amount, the United States could be allowed over 8,500 real warheads, compared to 5,700 at the conclusion of SALT I.)1 Moreover, cutting Soviet launchers in half, at the same time that Britain and France are allowed radical increases as they put multiple warheads on their missiles, will increase the West's collective advantage in warheads.

In any case, the combination of effects should encourage immobilism in the theater nuclear arena-which, until other things happen, is good. The several thousand U.S. tactical nuclear weapons that remain in Europe should not be reduced much further, at least in the absence of an agreement that substantially reduces the Soviet conventional military threat. Tactical weapons, even if they are reduced, could be made more capable and reliable through modernization, but forcing modernization of short-range forces risks provoking a political imbroglio in Germany that could deplete NATO strength more than tactical nuclear weapons modernization would add to it. The same is roughly true for proposals to compensate for Pershing 2 and GLCM removals by backdoor deployment of nuclear sea-launched cruise missiles.

The fabric of flexible response has frayed over the years because its underlying logic is weak; it is periodically patched and propped up because nothing better is available to replace it. Therefore, the best way to retard the doctrine's decline is to avoid any more elite handwringing and public debate than necessary. The best way to deal with the underlying weakness of the doctrine is to reduce the Soviet threat that has animated it-the hostility of Moscow and apparent superiority of its conventional military machine-before the patchwork collapses.

The possibility of lessening the Soviet threat now seems less remote, given the Kremlin's unilateral reductions, initiatives for serious conventional force negotiations and apparent willingness to make asymmetrical concessions. The danger here is Soviet attempts to push backdoor denuclearization: for example, by inducing the West to trade its dual-capable aircraft for Warsaw Pact tanks in a partial bargain that does not significantly reduce the Soviet conventional edge. Under certain conditions such a trade might offer some attraction,2 but withdrawing large numbers of dual-capable aircraft would make it impossible to avoid modernization of other short-range nuclear weapons without giving greater substance to the specter of denuclearization. The danger of backdoor denuclearization, however, is quite well recognized, and is no greater than the opposite danger that Western immobility in deciding on an acceptable conventional balance may forfeit the opportunity to make the balance more favorable.


Loose talk, suggesting that American withdrawals of troops from Europe are likely, has again filled the air. This is understandable (especially since Gorbachev's announcement of Soviet withdrawals) and it is useful for prodding the allies-just as the Mansfield and Nunn amendments were beneficial as long as they failed by a few votes. Without additional and massive Soviet withdrawals, however, it is hard to imagine that initiatives for anything more than a token pullout of a few thousand Americans will survive strategic criticism or marshal a political consensus.

Partial withdrawal would fall between two stools. There might be logic in removing and demobilizing all the U.S. troops in Europe. With population and GNP well in excess of those of the Warsaw Pact, Western Europe is materially capable of defending itself. If the United States decided that Europe should pay its own bill, and ended its commitment to NATO, it could save at least half its defense budget and wipe out its annual federal budget deficit. Short of such a radical step, however, major military withdrawals from Europe would make no sense.

While there is now wide disagreement on the status of the East-West military balance, few responsible analysts maintain that NATO has excess capability, or that major U.S. withdrawals would not cripple the possibility of mounting a successful conventional defense. The possibility of a successful defense may be dubious now, but why guarantee defeat?

The worst of both worlds would be to bring half the troops home: the conventional pillar of flexible response would be wrecked, but the United States would still be wasting the expense of keeping a large number of forces there with scant plausible mission beyond planning a repeat performance of the retreat to Dunkirk. Moreover, no money would be saved unless the troops withdrawn were demobilized. Yet many of the anti-Atlanticists recommending withdrawal are also hawks who want to keep U.S. military power at as high a level as possible.

Many doves, however, are most interested in reducing the profile of nuclear weapons in NATO's defense plans. If nuclear reliance is to go down without giving up deterrence altogether, most of them admit that conventional power has to compensate. They disagree over whether the West needs more forces, on how many are needed and of what type they should be, but few assert that we already have more than necessary. Therefore, it is hard to imagine the political coalition that could emerge between pro-military hawks and antinuclear doves to override the conservative impulse to keep the U.S. Seventh Army intact in Germany.

It is even harder to imagine any significant NATO buildup. The alliance has periodically made efforts to increase its forces-in 1952 with the Lisbon plan, in the early 1960s with the flexible response buildup, and in the late 1970s with the Long-Term Defense Plan-but the efforts always ebbed before improvements went far enough to shake the traditional assumption that the East was militarily superior on the ground.

There is one important difference this time. In the past many European governments resisted pressure to develop conventional power, not just because of the financial burden, but because they feared raising the specter of denuclearization by giving Washington an excuse to decouple its nuclear deterrent from European defense. Today, antinuclear sentiment among European voters has shaken their governments' traditional blithe preference for the strategy of deliberate nuclear escalation.

But this difference in political constraints is not enough to make a difference in policy. Just as Americans easily agree that their federal budget should balance, yet would rather forget about the problem than cut spending or raise taxes, Europeans may now more easily agree that conventional forces should balance but are not likely to do anything painful to make it happen. If there was any reason to doubt this before the end of 1988, it was washed away by Gorbachev's gambit of unilateral retrenchment. There is no way that West Europeans will believe that they need to do more militarily when the Soviets are doing less. Indeed, it will be a neat trick to keep the allies from cutting their defense budgets.


These crosscurrents, combined with the hopes engendered by Gorbachev's activism, make conventional arms control especially alluring. It is important, however, to avoid confusing the economic and political incentives (which argue for massive conventional cuts) with military benefits (which are more likely to accompany smaller reductions).

The military goal of arms control is strategic stability. In principle this means a balance of forces that makes it impossible for either side to defeat the other if war were to break out. But in practice, nations tend to identify stability with whatever makes their own military position safer, and what one nation does to make itself less vulnerable the other often views as a heightened threat. This leaves two ways for NATO and the Warsaw Pact to reach an accord.

The first would be for either power to decide that economic and political benefits of agreement take precedence, and to accept some implicitly greater risk of defeat in the event of war. If an accord is thought to reduce the danger that war could occur, or if economic problems are deemed more pressing than military threats, this could be a reasonable gamble. The more appealing alternative would be reductions that expand both sides' margin of military safety. This could happen if the treaty trimmed offensive weapons while keeping defensive ones, creating a technological situation of "defense dominance." Both sides would have to agree that certain capabilities (for example, tanks, long-range aircraft, and bridging equipment) are clearly more useful for attack than for protection.

Against this background, three obstacles to a conventional forces accord loom. None of them are necessarily insurmountable, but the odds of overcoming all are daunting.

First, Moscow is unlikely to be as generous in meeting Western terms on the conventional balance as it was on INF. Although Soviet acceptance of inequities in the zero solution was surprising, it was feasible because, despite all the sound and fury about them, medium-range missiles were not really very important. In the context of all the other nuclear forces surrounding them in the superpower strategic equation, disproportionate Soviet concessions in that dimension did not threaten to spell the difference between victory or defeat in war. The importance of the Euromissiles was far more symbolic than substantive. Armored divisions and wings of attack aircraft, on the other hand, are very important, and in more than a symbolic sense. Inequities in that dimension could indeed be critical to the outcome of war. Gorbachev could afford unilateral concessions to whet NATO's appetite, but can he afford to sate it? In March, Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze proposed three-stage reductions aimed at achieving equal armament on both sides, ultimately at levels more than a third lower than at present. This is promising, but the Soviets also insist on including air and naval forces, which NATO so far refuses to do. Other details of what forces would be counted were not spelled out by Shevardnadze.

Second, it will be much harder to reach a politically sturdy consensus of judgments on precisely which configurations and dispositions of conventional forces increase stability. Given the huge uncertainties about the nature and interaction of complex military forces, it is impossible to develop confident estimates of what relative capabilities are sufficient for successful attack or defense. Among American analysts there is a tremendous disagreement about which variables are central and which peripheral, what the data really are, which scenarios are probable or fanciful, what strategies and stratagems are practical, what models of combat dynamics should be applied to the data, and how reliable any approach is for estimating the outcome of a war.3

The theoretical solution-systematic discrimination against offensive forces-has been endorsed by the Soviets but will be hard to implement. All nations' military establishments will resist demands for radical reorganization. While distinctions exist, they are sometimes blurry and inconsistent, and depend on how different types of capability are integrated in strategy.4 For example, surface-to-air missiles and antitank munitions are among weapons most often considered defensive. In 1973, however, both aided Egypt's attack by shielding advancing ground forces against the aircraft and tanks that Israel deployed as defensive firepower.

The third obstacle to massive reductions will exist even if credible defensive dominance can be established. That is a potential inconsistency between the logic of arms control and negotiation, which aims to reduce military capabilities significantly and in a mutually acceptable way, and technical military stability. Why bother with negotiation if it does not reduce military burdens? And how far can reductions prove mutually acceptable if they do not tend in the direction of parity? At first glance, movement toward parity at lower levels of forces should be a victory for NATO. Under many circumstances this could turn out to be true at second or third glances as well. However, parity is not progress under all circumstances.

More balance in military capability does not automatically improve military stability if it comes at the expense of absolute density of forces along the defender's line. At present, most observers would credit NATO with the capacity to cover the central front with at least close to acceptable force-to-space ratios, but with dubious capacity to deploy sufficient operational reserves to back up the forward defense line. If the net effect of arms control were not only to lessen the disparity in ground forces between East and West, but also to reduce significantly the number of forces in place, NATO might be harder pressed to cover the front. Moreover, as the defensive party, NATO would have less freedom to leave major sectors lightly manned in order to concentrate forces in particular areas. Or, if the forward line were thinned out to keep some forces in reserve, it would become easier for Soviet attackers to find a gap through which they could punch with far less firepower than they would need now.

Thus the political and economic logic of aiming for major reductions could risk degrading technical military stability. Similarly, if the risk of reduced stability is modified by keeping a large military capability outside the theater but available in an emergency to move in and thicken up a defensive line, the military benefit could vitiate economic savings. Restationing ground forces at home, and buying more sea and air transport to be able to redeploy them to Europe, would cost more than keeping them in Germany.

More reliance on mobilization could also be destabilizing in a crisis, by putting greater pressure on decision-makers to react quickly to an ambiguous warning and begin marshaling military forces. For example, if NATO and the Soviet Union both deployed, say, 20 divisions near the central front, and the Soviets moved in an extra five divisions for what might be "defensive" purposes (to sit on rambunctious allies), NATO might be able to react cautiously and wait to assess the move before mobilizing in response. If both sides had only five divisions normally in place, however, the addition of five more would be much more immediately alarming. Rather than changing the force ratio from 1:1 to 5:4 as in the first example, the same Soviet move in the second instance would change it to 2:1. Change in this direction would move in the direction of conjuring up the spectral "1914" scenario of mutually reactive escalation.

It is ironic, then, that many of the most ardent arms controllers are also those most interested in crisis management and avoidance of escalating alert situations. There may be ways, through combinations of various schemes and conditions, to avoid these dangers, but no way yet stands out clearly enough to allow political leaders to move quickly toward a dramatic accord that is not very vulnerable to military criticism. And if the process of negotiation is overly fastidious on all points, the odds of achieving agreement plummet.


There are powerful reasons for both speed and caution, depending on what the primary aim of the negotiation really is going to be: to stabilize the East-West confrontation militarily, or to move toward resolving it politically. And if the latter course is chosen, on what terms will it be sought? The Soviet leader may know where he would like to go. NATO has not even begun to figure out this epochal question.

The case for urgency comes from pressures on both Mikhail Gorbachev and George Bush. If the Soviet leader continues indefinitely with little to show for his high-rolling and free-wheeling initiatives, his chances of staying in power or on the same course will decline. If the American leader does not give up some military power as part of a deal for further reductions in Soviet forces he may wind up giving up just as much, but for unilateral economic reasons. President Bush may ultimately find defense budget cuts the path of least resistance to reining in the deficit-and if he does not, Congress, which has already cut the defense budget every year since 1985, is likely to do so. If military programs are to be pinched anyway, why not get some diplomatic credit?

If, however, "business as usual" triumphs over eagerness for a breakthrough we might get lucky and see the Soviets capitulate abjectly, as they did in accepting the zero solution for INF. It is nearly as likely, however, that a position of Western intransigence would aggravate the strains that already threaten the internal political consensus of the NATO alliance. Gorbachev's military concessions might succeed in splitting NATO better than Brezhnev's SS-20s did.

The case for caution comes from doubts about what tactics are effective for inducing concessions, and whether we can count on Western cooperation to secure Soviet amity. Some Sovietologists believe that Gorbachev's boldly accommodating initiatives were forced by the combination of Western pressures and Soviet economic straits, and that concessions only ease Moscow's need for retrenchment. Whether Gorbachev or his policies survive, in turn, may not be determined by Western responses, however forthcoming they might be. Yet the Western concessions would remain pocketed by whatever leadership might take over in the Kremlin.

Given such conflicting uncertainties, the best course for NATO is a three-track approach. One track is to reciprocate Gorbachev's ten-percent reductions with token cuts fairly soon, to give him some cover if he wants to rationalize further cuts, and to blunt the influence of Western critics who charge that NATO is recalcitrant. Such a gesture could coincide with unilateral shrinkage of military programs that might be anticipated anyway as a result of budgetary stringency. For example, the United States might demobilize one of the U.S.-based divisions slated for reinforcement of NATO. Or, Washington might declare that the current planned expansion of the navy to 15 aircraft carriers will be cut back to 14.

The second track would be formal negotiation. In these talks the alliance should stick with cautious demands for disproportionate reduction of Soviet armored forces. This would test what opportunity there might be to exploit Soviet desperation while buying time for progress on the third track: NATO's self-examination on the questions about ultimate objectives. Until we have a clearer idea about the latter, only small cuts in NATO ground forces in Germany should be considered. This contradicts conventional wisdom, and could be especially unpopular in Germany, but as long as military stability remains a criterion, the costs of removing forces from the scene exceed the benefits. Substantial demilitarization of the area should be tied to a substantial political settlement.

Avoiding large cuts in forces in Germany could spur a deal rather than impede it. Anxiety about the ability of NATO's armed forces to cover the front is part of the reason for some Western experts' argument that any reductions must be at least five-to-one in NATO's favor. If cuts were concentrated in the reinforcing units based outside the area, it would be reasonable to accept a lower, more negotiable ratio. NATO should not make the perfect military solution (overall conventional equality) the enemy of the good (a less unfavorable balance than would exist without arms control). The alliance's official opening position probably errs in that manner, by focusing on categories of gross Soviet predominance, such as numbers of tanks and artillery, and demanding reduction to equal levels. We should be willing to trade some air power for Soviet ground force cuts that bring the balance closer to equality. Reductions in non-Soviet Warsaw Pact forces should be of secondary interest at most (some of those forces, such as Poland's, may be hardly more of a threat to NATO than to the U.S.S.R.).

Unless the West remains lucky and Gorbachev continues to drive easy bargains, negotiation is unlikely to produce more than marginal reductions. But this is as it should be until Moscow makes clearer its interest in fundamental military disengagement, and until the alliance moves on the third track and decides the terms on which it should accept a radical change in the strategic structure of Europe. We should determine what military arrangements we need according to the kind of world we want, not the other way around. Massive withdrawals of the superpowers' forces from the region are hard to imagine without far more independence for Eastern Europe-and for America's allies.

Such events could soon make the traditional bipolar division of the continent obviously anachronistic, and NATO would degenerate into an empty formality. One obvious problem with that scenario is that if the Soviet threat reemerges, it might be difficult to reintroduce American military power quickly. Leaving that aside, settlement of the cold war could as likely prove to be dangerous as wonderful. NATO has enjoyed four decades of stability based on controlled tension. Freedom of maneuver would put many things up for grabs in new ways.

Can any but the most amoral strategist endorse preserving military stability and the division of Europe if the alternative is more political freedom and a lowered economic burden for all? Can we afford to wait for a more congenial Soviet leadership than Gorbachev's to come along and offer a more favorable resolution of Europe's security problem? Probably not.

It will be a heroic enough feat, however, for NATO to overcome inertia and bring itself to any imaginative reformation of policy. That is why continuity remains a good bet. But leaders should recognize that if the potential in Gorbachev's radicalism pans out, the alliance may face a choice which offers a higher payoff than business as usual, but also higher risk. This course may be more desirable than the status quo, but it may also be less stable.

3 For the range of issues see Stephen D. Biddle, "The European Conventional Balance: A Reinterpretation of the Debate," Survival, March/April 1988; Paul K. Davis, The Role of Uncertainty in Assessing the NATO-Pact Central Region Balance, RAND Corporation, April 1988; Richard K. Betts, "Conventional Deterrence: Predictive Uncertainty and Policy Confidence," World Politics, January 1985; James Blaker and Andrew Hamilton, Assessing the NATO/Warsaw Pact Military Balance, Congressional Budget Office, December 1977; and the exchanges among John Leppingwell, Joshua Epstein, John Mearsheimer, Barry Posen and Eliot Cohen in International Security over the past two years.

4 See Michael Howard, War in European History, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976; George Quester, Offense and Defense in the International System, New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1988; Jack S. Levy, "The Offensive/Defensive Balance of Military Technology," International Studies Quarterly, June 1984; Jack Snyder, The Ideology of the Offensive, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984, and "Limiting Offensive Conventional Forces: Soviet Proposals and Western Options," International Security, Spring 1988; and Stephen Van Evera, "The Cult of the Offensive and the Origins of the First World War," International Security, Summer 1984. For arguments criticizing the deterrent weakness of defensive doctrine and strategy see Samuel P. Huntington, "Conventional Deterrence and Conventional Retaliation in Europe," International Security, Winter 1983-84, and Scott D. Sagan, "1914 Revisited: Allies, Offense, and Instability," International Security, Fall 1986.

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  • Richard K. Betts is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and has taught at Harvard, Columbia and the Johns Hopkins universities. Among his books are Soldiers, Statesmen, and Cold War Crises (1977), Surprise Attack (1982) and Nuclear Blackmail and Nuclear Balance (1987). This article is adapted from a paper prepared for a joint seminar of Los Alamos National Laboratory and the University of Maryland.
  • More By Richard K. Betts