Historians who attempt to look into and prescribe for the future are professionally inclined to offer as much past history as they think they can get away with, and as little prophecy and prescription as they think their readers will accept. Historians have seen too many confident prophets fall flat on their faces to lay themselves open to more humiliation than they can help. We know that all we can do is to help diagnose the problem or, better, expose false diagnoses. We also believe that in doing this it is helpful to consider how a situation has developed, in this instance in casting a backward look over the origins and development of the Western Alliance to see how we have got to where we are now. There is little point in considering where we should be going if we do not first decide where we are starting from.

Let us go back 35 years, a third of a century, to the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. It is one of those short-lived periods of the past that we know about from two sources. First, there are the memories of the survivors; men and women not yet in their dotage who played a significant part in the events of the time and recall, or believe they recall, them clearly. Second, those memories can now be checked against the relevant documents; and those documents can still be interpreted in the light of human recollection. It is a period fresh in the minds of many of us, but already digested into that group-memory of the past created and preserved by professional historians.

After the "Battle of the Books" between the revisionist and counterrevisionist schools, a picture has emerged over which most historians now agree. It is one of wartime understandings between the Soviet Union and its Western allies-understandings based largely on Western illusions, or at best the most fragile of hopes-breaking down within a few months of the end of hostilities. The Soviet Union moved in-economically, politically and militarily-to consolidate, as part of its empire, the territories already occupied by its armed forces. Simultaneously the United States was liquidating its wartime commitments to its European allies as quickly as-some might say more quickly than-it decently could. As a result Western Europe, in 1946-47, trembled on the verge of economic collapse; a collapse which its Moscow-oriented communist parties were fully prepared to exploit. In Germany, and especially in Berlin, democratic political parties fought what seemed to be a losing battle against strong, well-organized and confident communist opponents who for the past 15 years had been preparing for just such an opportunity. There was a widespread fear, not of Soviet military attack on Western Europe but of a disintegration of the whole political and economic structure that would make any such attack unnecessary.

It was to prevent such a disintegration that the United States initiated, in 1947, the European Recovery Program. This program may have had an unforeseen escalatory effect in that it was perceived by the Soviet Union as a threat to its own control of Eastern Europe, and so precipitated those actions in Prague and Berlin in 1948 that were read by many in the West as clear evidence of Soviet aggressive intentions. If the Russians were thwarted in their use of political means for attaining their objectives (so the argument went) might they not use military ones-unless they were deterred from doing so by the clear perception that any such move would bring them up against the enormous latent power of the United States?


This was the thinking that led to the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949. Serious expectation of Soviet armed attack in Western Europe was still not very high. It was to increase dramatically for a few months at the time of the Korean War, but even then the Europeans were less conscious of any imminent "Soviet Threat" than they were of their own weakness, disunity and inability to cope with such a threat if one emerged. The American military presence was wanted in Western Europe, not just in the negative role of a deterrent to Soviet aggression, but in the positive role of a reassurance to the West Europeans; the kind of reassurance a child needs from its parents or an invalid from his doctors against dangers which, however remote, cannot be entirely discounted. This concept of reassurance has not, so far as I know, hitherto been a term of art in strategic analysis, but it should be, and so far as I am concerned it is now.

Whether the North Atlantic Treaty and the steps taken to implement it were really necessary to deter the Soviet Union from a military onslaught on Western Europe we cannot tell until the Russians are as generous with access to their official documents as we are in the West. It is, however, improbable, given both their historical record and their political philosophy, that they would have seriously contemplated such an action unless and until a recognizable "revolutionary situation" had developed in the West in which they could plausibly intervene to give fraternal support to the toiling masses and to a powerful indigenous communist party that would act as their agent in controlling the region after its conquest. These requirements seemed, in the 1940s, to be developing quite nicely. Within a decade they had disappeared. Whatever the effectiveness of deterrence, reassurance had worked.

The economy of Western Europe recovered, and with it the political self-confidence of the West Europeans. The communist parties withdrew from the center of the political stage to the periphery, and increasingly distanced themselves from Moscow. Serious fears of Soviet attack dwindled, and after Stalin's death they almost disappeared from the public consciousness. The outbreaks in Eastern Europe from 1953 onward showed that it was the Soviet Union that was now on the political defensive. Its treatment of the Hungarian rising in 1956 led to massive defections from, and splits within, the communist parties in the West. In West Germany the economic miracle sucked out of the Eastern zone, by the hundreds of thousands, precisely those well-qualified young people that the German Democratic Republic needed to reconstruct its own economy. By the end of the 1950s Western Europe was an economic powerhouse that would have dominated Eastern Europe if the Soviet Union had let it. A decade later it was beginning to rival its own protector.

During this period, the success of reassurance was, in some respects, an obstacle to deterrence. The peoples of Western Europe were so effectively reassured that they were prepared to run military risks that have given their military leaders nightmares for the past 30 years. In 1950 there may have been serious fears of Soviet attack. Three years later, when European statesmen came to consider the price which their military advisers had calculated, at the NATO Lisbon meeting in 1952, they would have to pay for a credible deterrent military posture, such fears had almost disappeared. The reestablishment of economic stability was considered to demand overriding priority and the targets established at Lisbon for the immediate buildup of NATO forces went out of the window. In the judgment of the political leaders of Western Europe, the danger of the Soviet military attack did not appear great enough to warrant the costs involved in building up the kind of defensive forces that, on a purely military calculus, would be needed to deter it.

It was then that thermonuclear weapons came to the rescue of soldiers and politicians alike, providing a deterrent that appeared militarily credible at a socially acceptable cost. The long-term implications of depending on weapons of mass destruction for national security worried only a politically insignificant minority. Governments, and the majorities on which they relied, found in nuclear weapons so convenient a solution to their budgetary problems that they were adopted almost without question. Conventional forces, with all their heavy social costs, could be reduced to the status of tripwires, or, at most, of shields to repel an enemy assault for the brief time needed for the Strategic Air Command to strike decisively at targets within the Soviet Union. The critiques both of the moralists and of the military specialists made no impact on those real centers of power in Western governments, the treasuries, which owe their power to their capacity to reflect and enforce broadly accepted social priorities.

Whatever their defense specialists might tell them about the balance of military forces, the peoples of Western Europe, so long as they remained prosperous, saw little danger of Soviet attack and wanted defense on the cheap. They remained reassured, though whether this reassurance came from shrewdness or from self-delusion, from confidence in American nuclear supremacy or basic disbelief in the reality of any Soviet threat, it would probably be impossible to say. In any case throughout the 1950s and the 1960s deterrence and reassurance both worked. The Europeans did get defense on the cheap, as they were getting energy on the cheap, and, thanks to the benevolent Keynesianism of the ruling economic pundits, everything else on the cheap. As one European leader remarked of his own people, they had never had it so good.

Pleasant as this condition was so long as it lasted, it had two characteristics which in historical perspective emerge very clearly. One was that the credibility of the deterrent posture depended on a continuing American nuclear ascendancy over the Soviet Union. The second, and perhaps more significant, was that the peoples of Western Europe effectively abandoned responsibility for their own defense. Their own armed forces, forces which have always had the social role of embodying national self-consciousness and will to independent existence, became almost peripheral, part of a mechanism of nuclear deterrence the ultimate control of which lay elsewhere. The reluctance of the British and French governments to accept this situation and their development of strategic nuclear capabilities of their own have to be understood in these psychological terms, rather than those of the somewhat tortuous rationales which French and British officials now advance to justify their existence.

But even if these weapons do, however marginally, enhance national independence, they are not "popular" forces-forces, that is, with whose fortunes the nation can identify itself, as the British people identified themselves with the fortunes of their forces in the recent Falkland Islands campaign. And to show the significance of this fact, permit me a brief excursion into history.


Popular involvement in war, as all readers of Clausewitz will know, is a matter of comparatively recent origin. In the eighteenth century, wars in Europe were fought by specialists responsive only to the requirements of absolute governments; the less the population was involved in them the better. The role of the good citizen was to pay the taxes needed for the upkeep of these specialists, to acquiesce philosophically in any incidental hardships that their operations might cause him, and to keep his mouth shut. It was the French Revolution that (after the American Revolution) made popular involvement an intrinsic factor in war-a factor that was to become of growing importance until, in the First World War, it overshadowed everything else. In that conflict popular passion rather than military skill, much less political wisdom, determined the course of the war and ultimately its outcome.

In the Second World War popular participation was still an essential element, although the contribution of scientific and technical specialists was increasingly decisive. But in the nuclear age those specialists have again reduced peoples to the passive roles they played, or were supposed to play, in the eighteenth century. It is assumed that war, if it comes, will be fought for them by experts, over their heads.

The extent to which this has occurred can be seen by considering the debates over NATO strategy that have taken place, whether in official circles or in centers for strategic studies, during the past 20 years. Increasingly the defense of Western Europe has been considered simply as a problem of "extended deterrence" involving calculations of possibilities and probabilities as abstract as those of a chess game; a problem to be solved by various combinations and deployments of delivery systems, strategic, intermediate or tactical, land-based, sea-based or air-based, but all under American control. The expertise needed to make these calculations is shared only by small groups of specialists and officials in European defense ministries, who have seldom seen it as their duty to expound these calculations to a wider public. They are too abstract, too arcane. Whatever the merits of the argument, for example, that the Soviet deployment of SS-20 missiles had to be countered by the emplacement of cruise missiles and Pershing IIs, it did not arise out of any profound and widely held anxiety among the peoples of Western Europe. It was a debate among specialists-and specialists who did not have the political antennae to foresee that such emplacement might make people feel more vulnerable rather than less.

This is not to say that the specialists are to blame for this failure in communication. In defense questions as in any other area of government-economic policy, for example, or finance-the layman does not expect to have to master the technical details. He employs the expert to handle them for him. In defense as in these other fields there is always likely to be a difference between expert and lay perceptions, and it is the job of political leadership to reconcile them. In the field of defense this difference appears nowhere more clearly than in the distinction I have made between reassurance and deterrence.

For the expert the two are indistinguishable. He will not believe his country to be safe unless he is satisfied that provision has been made to counter every option open to every likely adversary. The layman may be less demanding, but sometimes he is more. In certain moods, for example, the Congress of the United States has refused to be reassured by the deterrent posture that its military specialists have pronounced to be adequate. In Europe, on the other hand, the peoples of the Western democracies have accepted as amply reassuring a deterrent posture that their experts have repeatedly told them is dangerously inadequate, and if the events of the past 30 years are anything to go by, popular instinct has proved more reliable than expert fears. In spite of the repeated warnings of its military specialists, no threat has materialized. Instead, the prosperity of the West has reached unheard-of heights. It is the communist societies, those which 30 years ago seemed so psychologically as well as militarily menacing, that now appear to be on the verge of economic and political disintegration.


Since the system that we have adopted has proved so successful for so long, is there really anything for us to worry about? Is there any real need to reassess the requirements for defense, deterrence or reassurance for the 1980s and 1990s? I must admit once more to a historian's bias, which predisposes me to assume the obsolescence of any international structure with the passage of time. The Vienna settlement of 1814-15, for example, lasted for about 40 years. So did the Bismarckian settlement of the 1870s. The structure is bound to be transformed by the dynamics of social change, by the altered perspectives and beliefs of a new generation skeptical, and rightly so, about the settled assumptions of its predecessors. We must ask not only whether the existing solutions are still valid for the problems that evoked them, but whether the problems themselves remain unchanged, and whether attitudes stereotyped in the late 1940s will still be relevant half a century later.

There can be little doubt that since 1949 changes have occurred, both objective and subjective, on a scale comparable to those between 1815 and 1854, or 1870 and 1914: changes in the relationship between Western Europe and the United States, changes in the military balance between the United States and the Soviet Union. These have been on a scale quite sufficient to compel a reappraisal of requirements for deterrence and reassurance established a generation ago.

The various causes and symptoms of transatlantic tension have been discussed so generally and so repeatedly that I propose to focus only on that most relevant to our problem, that is, the degree of anti-American sentiment now so evident in so many countries of Western Europe, to say nothing of the understandable resentment this has created in the United States. Opinion polls have revealed this anti-Americanism to be far less widespread than its more dramatic manifestations may sometimes suggest, but whatever its strength and incidence it is disturbing enough to demand an explanation and to be taken seriously into account. It indicates that, for an appreciable number of Europeans, what was once seen as the prime requirement of deterrence, that is, the commitment of American power to the defense of Western Europe, no longer provides the political reassurance that once it did; in some respects indeed the exact opposite. So far from the Americans being in Europe to help the West Europeans defend themselves, they are seen in some quarters as being here in order to prosecute "their" war-a war in which the Europeans have no interest and from which they will be the first to suffer.

How has such a widespread and grotesque misunderstanding come about? Obviously there is a whole complex of reasons, in which simple cultural friction plays its part. But it is at least in part the outcome of the process I have described, by which the defense of Europe has become perceived not as the responsibility of the Europeans themselves but increasingly in terms of a system of "extended nuclear deterrence" manipulated from the United States in accordance with strategic concepts with which few Europeans are familiar. If I may return to my historical discourse, in the eighteenth century the European bourgeoisie was well content to leave the conduct of war to its specialists and enjoy the improved quality of life made possible by that division of labor. But it was precisely this divorce of the bourgeoisie and their intelligentsia from the whole business of national defense that gave rise to the first peace movements. It was the intellectuals who maintained that, because wars were conducted by monarchical states with aristocratic-led professional soldiers, it was this war-making mechanism that actually produced wars, and that all that was needed to abolish war would be to abolish monarchs, aristocrats and the military profession, after which it could be assumed that the peoples of Europe would live together in peace and harmony.

The wars of the French Revolution were to disillusion them, as the First World War was to disillusion another generation of peace-bred intellectuals and the Second World War yet a third. But it takes only one generation of successful peacekeeping to engender the belief, among those not concerned with its mechanisms, that peace is a natural condition threatened only by those professionally involved in preparations for war. The military become the natural target for the idealistic young. And how much more will this be the case if those military are predominantly foreign; if the decision for peace or war appears to lie with a group of remote and uncontrollable decision-makers whose values and interests do not necessarily coincide with one's own; and if war is going to involve slaughter on so unimaginable a scale? Is it not the Americans who are actually provoking the war? So the growth of pacifism, always endemic in a society that delegates defense questions to specialists, has in contemporary Europe become associated with anti-Americanism, and derives from that a populist veneer that otherwise it might lack.

It is here that the change in the military balance comes in. I would not like to judge how far the effectiveness of American reassurance in the 1950s and 1960s was due to any general perception, in Western Europe, of American nuclear predominance. Certainly neither European nor American defense experts ever cited this as evidence for the credibility of nuclear deterrence, and the latter could seldom be persuaded to admit that any such predominance existed. One can only say that expectations of the damage Western Europe might suffer as a result of Soviet response to that American "first use" on which NATO strategy explicitly depended led to no widespread questioning on this side of the Atlantic of the validity of that strategy. It was the Americans, under then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who were unhappy about it, but they could find few Europeans, outside our tiny defense community, to share their doubts.

But in the last few years it has been clear to all, and publicly admitted by the United States, that the nuclear balance is one of parity-indeed, some American official utterances have tended to suggest that the Soviets may now be ahead in key respects. The fact that the present peace movement has become active in Western Europe in this situation may or may not be coincidental. It does mean, however, that the peace movement can now support its arguments with some fairly tough strategic analysis, and find more sympathy within the defense community than would have been the case 20 years ago. It is no longer just a minority of anti-militarist intelligentsia who question the validity and credibility of a deterrent posture which would, if activated, destroy everything it is concerned to defend.

The result of these developments has been a serious disjunction between deterrence and reassurance. The object of deterrence is to persuade an adversary that the costs to him of seeking a military solution to his political problems will far outweigh the benefits. The object of reassurance is to persuade one's own people, and those of one's allies, that the benefits of military action, or preparation for it, will outweigh the costs. It is true that Europeans were reassured in the 1950s not by any careful calculation of what they would lose or gain by war, but by their perception of the reverse-of how much the Russians would have to lose and how little to gain. They could threaten, or rather their allies could threaten, such cataclysmic damage to the enemy, at such low immediate social cost to themselves, that the risk of any comparable damage to themselves was seen as low enough to be tolerable.

This is the situation that has been changed by nuclear parity, and it is a change of which all Europeans and an increasing number of Americans have now become conscious. Defense specialists may be puzzled and scornful that people who have been under threat of nuclear attack for at least 20 years should only now be beginning to take the problem seriously, but that they have now begun to do so is a new political fact that governments will have to take into account. It is also apparent, at least in Europe, that reassurance cannot be reestablished by any improvement in the mechanism of deterrence, certainly not of nuclear deterrence. Perhaps the peoples of Western Europe ought to feel safer when the installation of Pershing IIs and cruise missiles has made clear our capacity to counter an SS-20 first strike, but I doubt whether they really will. Perhaps we ought all to feel safer if the United States were to develop the capacity to carry on, and "prevail" in, a prolonged nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union. In fact, public opinion in Europe is appalled at the prospect-and so is much of it in the United States. In the calculus of nuclear deterrence both developments may appear appropriate, even necessary, but such a calculus does not translate easily into the language of political reassurance; certainly not in Europe where any nuclear exchange, on however limited a scale, spells almost inconceivable disaster. Limited nuclear options do not look very attractive if we are likely to be one of them ourselves.

Any consideration of domestic consensus on defense questions must therefore begin with the realization that in Europe the Soviet Union is seen as less of a danger than the prospect of nuclear war. I state this dogmatically and can support the statement with no evidence from opinion polls. It is an impression gained from a wide study of the press, the media, and discussion with friends and colleagues outside the defense community. It is also important to realize that the nuclear war anticipated is not seen as one arising out of a Soviet attack on Western Europe, but rather from some self-sustaining process of escalation, perhaps originating in an extra-European conflict but essentially caused by the whole apparatus of nuclear weaponry in some way "getting out of control." Nuclear war is widely seen as a Ding an Sich, unrelated to the existing political situation or to any security requirements likely to arise out of it. It is therefore against the prospect of nuclear war itself, rather than that of Soviet attack, that the Europeans now require reassurance, and any measures taken to deal with the latter that make the former seem more likely will continue to be deeply disruptive.

The explanation that any measures effective in deterring Soviet attack make nuclear war less likely is no longer, for many Europeans, altogether persuasive. As fears of nuclear war become detached from fears of Soviet attack, so reassurance becomes divorced from deterrence. And it must be admitted that those calculations of nuclear strategy so distressingly prevalent in the United States, which take place in a kind of empyrean remote from the political realities of Europe or anywhere else, have powerfully contributed to this divorce.


How are we to deal with this problem? How are deterrence and reassurance to be once more reconciled? This is the task that will confront statesmen and strategists for the rest of this century.

The task is complicated by differing perspectives on either side of the Atlantic as to what it is that we have to deter. The difference between European and American readings of Soviet power and intentions have here to be accepted as given: the fact that as European fears of Soviet aggression have waned over the past 30 years, so American fears have grown; the curious phenomenon that the countries most directly threatened by Soviet military power, West Germany and France, are those most confident of their ability to handle the Soviet Union through the normal machinery of diplomatic and political intercourse, while for the most remote, the most powerful and the least threatened of the allies, the United States, the Soviet Union still bulks as a figure of almost cosmic evil with which no real dialogue is possible.

Whether the European attitude is the result of greater wisdom or merely of wishful thinking is a matter that we could debate endlessly. But I believe that a significant element in this difference of view lies in the degree to which we Europeans have abandoned the primary responsibility for our defense to the United States; have come to take the deterrence provided by others for granted; and now assume that the dangers against which we once demanded reassurance only now exist in the fevered imagination of our protectors. A certain American tendency to hyperbole, an attachment to worst-case analysis and some unfortunate attempts to make our flesh creep with official Pentagon publications in gorgeous technicolor whose statistics have been questioned even by European defense specialists, none of this has helped improve matters. Such propagandistic efforts are widely discounted, and even when they are believed they are likely to engender not so much resolution as despair.

Our first task must therefore be to get Soviet power and intentions into perspective. The exaggerated melodrama implied in the term "the Soviet Threat" seems and has always seemed to me unnecessary and counterproductive. There is a major problem of ideological hostility, and a major problem (though one not to be exaggerated) of military imbalance between a power the size of the Soviet Union and the smaller, even if richer and more dynamic, states of Western Europe. One does not have to attribute to the Soviet Union either predatory intentions or ambitions for global conquest to make clear to all but a stubborn minority that the states of Western Europe have a problem of military security that must be solved if normal intercourse with the Soviet Union is to be sustained on a basis of equality. The Soviet Union has shown itself to be no more reluctant to use military means to solve political problems, when it can get away with it, than anyone else. It is not difficult to reach consensus within most groups of West Europeans that Western Europe needs defenses against the Soviet Union. Where consensus breaks down is over the question, whether Europe can possibly be defended by nuclear war.

The second task therefore is to show that Europe can be defended, and that the costs of doing so would not outweigh the benefits. These costs must be seen as twofold: the prospective costs of war, whether nuclear or conventional, with which public opinion is chiefly concerned, and the immediate costs of an economic kind, which are what worry governments. It is easy enough to say that no price is too high for the preservation of our independence, but it does not quite work out like that. Governments are concerned with independence, but they are also concerned with social stability. Even in the darkest days of the cold war the "Soviet Threat" was seen as ancillary to, and only given credibility by, the danger of social disintegration in the West. It is still generally assumed that a stable and prosperous Western Europe will not present an attractive target to Soviet ambitions. Defense expenditure has therefore to be fitted into a general framework of economic policy in which the maintenance of an industrious economy and a high level of social welfare (so far as these can be reconciled) must enjoy an overriding priority. This assumption has not altered over the past 30 years, nor is it likely to change much over the next 30.

During the past 30 years this problem of costs was, as we have seen, taken care of by nuclear deterrence. The immediate costs were kept acceptably low, the risk of incurring the ultimate costs seemed acceptably slight. Now, although there is a far greater reluctance to incur those long-term risks, there is no greater readiness to accept any increase in immediate costs, especially during a period of recession when the danger of social instability seems greater than at any time since the 1940s. Again, it is easy to say that no price should be too high for the avoidance of nuclear war. But for governments concerned with their everyday tasks nuclear war still remains a remote if terrifying hypothesis, while mass unemployment, commercial bankruptcies and industrial discontent are an imminent reality. A society where domestic consensus has collapsed is in no position to fight a war, nuclear or otherwise.

So where does this leave us? First, the requirement for effective deterrence remains, if only because the Soviet Union cannot be expected to observe a higher standard of conduct toward weaker neighbors than other states, whatever their political complexion, have shown in the past. Second, deterrence can no longer depend on the threat of a nuclear war, the costs of which would be grotesquely out of proportion to any conceivable benefits to be derived from engaging in it. Third, proposals to make nuclear war "fightable," let alone "winnable," by attempting to limit its targets and control its course, however much sense this may make in the military grammar of deterrence, are not persuasive in the political language of reassurance. And, finally, the problem cannot be solved by any massive transfer of resources to conventional capabilities. The immediate social costs of doing so, whether one likes it or not, are unacceptably high.


Whatever the solution may be, I do not believe that it can be found at the macro-level of nuclear deterrence. There is a point beyond which the elaboration of nuclear arsenals ceases to bear any evident relation to the real problems faced by political communities, and so far as Europe is concerned we passed that point long ago. It must be sought at the micro-level of the peoples, the societies that have to be defended, and for whose political cohesion, moral resolution and military preparedness nuclear weapons can no longer provide a credible substitute.

There has been for many years what I can only describe as a morally debilitating tendency among European defense specialists to argue that if the reassurance provided by the American nuclear guarantee were to be in any way diminished, European morale would collapse. This has always seemed to me one of those unfortunate self-fulfilling prophecies, and one that American defense analysts have taken altogether too seriously. The reassurance on which most Europeans rely is the presence among them of American troops; a presence that makes the defense of West European territory appear a feasible proposition and has encouraged us to make greater provision for our own defense.

What is needed today is a reversal of that process whereby European governments have sought greater security by demanding an ever greater intensification of the American nuclear commitment; demands that are as divisive within their own countries as they are irritating for the people of the United States. Instead, we should be doing all that we can to reduce our dependence on American nuclear weapons by enhancing, so far as is militarily, socially and economically possible, our capacity to defend ourselves.

By "defend ourselves" I mean defend ourselves in the conventional sense with conventional weapons. I know that this view will not be universally popular. It is often argued that no such defense is possible unless we are prepared to turn Western Europe into an armed camp, a proposition that would be true only if we intended to fight a total war aiming at the destruction of the Soviet armed forces and the dictation of peace in Moscow. It is argued that, whatever effort we made, the Soviet armed forces would ultimately overwhelm us. Of course they could, if they were prepared to pay the price; which is why I for one would be unwilling explicitly to renounce under any circumstances the use of nuclear weapons. But the price can be a high one, even without recourse to these. It has been argued that, for those exposed to it, conventional war is no less terrible than nuclear war, and indeed events in the Lebanon have shown us just how terrible it can be-especially for those who have no means of defending themselves. But terrible as conventional war would be in Europe, nuclear war would be unimaginably, unendurably worse. Modern societies recover from conventional war within a generation. Whether humanity would ever recover from nuclear war is a matter for legitimate doubt.

Let us remember what we are trying to do. It is to deter the Soviet Union from using military force to solve its political differences with the West; deter them in a way that will be credible to their leaders and acceptable-reassuring-to our own peoples. It is to make clear to the Soviet Union that in any attack on the West the costs will hugely outweigh the benefits, and to our own people that the benefits of such a defense will outweigh the costs. We have to make it clear to our potential adversaries that there can be no easy military solution to their political problems, no "quick fix." And this is best done by showing that any attack would be met by lethally efficient armed forces, backed up and where necessary assisted by a resolute and prepared population; with the distinct possibility that the conflict might escalate to nuclear war and the certainty that, even if it did not, their armed forces would suffer casualties out of all proportion to any likely gains.

I admit that this is an ideal model to which we can hope only to approximate, but I defy anyone to think of a better. The only likely alternative indeed is one of inadequate, ill-equipped and undertrained forces, fighting on behalf of a divided or an indifferent population and dependent on an American President being prepared to sanction a nuclear release that would certainly destroy all they were fighting to defend and might very well unleash a global holocaust. That is the prospect that worries so many of us today, and the peace movement is only articulating, in extreme form, many widespread and legitimate doubts.

To escape from this situation and move toward the goal I have suggested would mean a change of emphasis from nuclear deterrence to conventional, or even unconventional, defense. It would mean a shifting of primary responsibility to the Europeans for the defense of our own continent; and it might involve a greater degree of popular participation in defensive preparations, participation the more likely to be forthcoming if it is clear that such preparations were predominantly non-nuclear. An invitation to participate in such preparations would indeed be the acid test for the peace movement, sorting out those who were interested only in making moral gestures and those whose sympathies lie on the other side of the Iron Curtain from the great majority of thoughtful citizens seriously concerned with questions of defense.

Progress along these lines, however modest, would do much to resolve the difficulties within the Alliance and create what Professor Lawrence Freedman has called "a more mature relationship." It would create a defense posture acceptable to our own people as well as credible to our potential adversaries. It would not solve the problem of deterring a first nuclear strike by the opposition. For that, as for much else, the Europeans must continue to depend on the United States, and few Americans would wish it otherwise. But this reliance must be placed in perspective. A Soviet nuclear attack on Western Europe, or the plausible threat of one, is not utterly inconceivable, and it is certainly an option that we need to deter. But it does not rank high on the list of political probabilities, and the measures taken to counter it should not be regarded or depicted as being basic to European defense. The necessity for such countermeasures should be fully and publicly explained, but they should be put in the context of the fundamental task which only non-nuclear forces can effectively carry out-the defense of territory. Nuclear deterrence needs to be subordinated to this primary task of territorial defense, and not vice versa.

It is the reassertion of this order of priorities, this reuniting of deterrence and reassurance, that seems to me basic for the creation of consensus within the Alliance over the requirements for the defense of the West in the 1980s, or indeed for however long it may take to establish such intimate and friendly relations with the Soviet Union that defense becomes a pure formality. And in order to maintain consensus, the achievement of this relationship must be seen to be our long-term goal. I hope it goes without saying that any developments along the lines I have proposed should go hand in hand with arms control initiatives, both to eliminate unnecessary causes of tension and to keep the costs of defense on both sides down to socially acceptable levels. But we should not allow ourselves to expect any miraculous breakthroughs as a result of such initiatives, or be unduly depressed or bitter if they fail. This "dual track" is essential to effective reassurance: peoples expect their governments to provide them with adequate protection, but they also expect them to seek peace and ensue it, and if they are not seen to be doing so, consensus over defense will crumble away.

Above all we must stop being frightened, and trying to frighten each other, with specters either of Soviet "windows of opportunity" or of the prospect of inevitable, self-generating nuclear war. Defense will continue to be a necessity in a world of sovereign states. Nuclear war is a terrible possibility that nothing can now eradicate, but of whose horrors we must never lose sight. To deal with the dilemma arising from these twin evils we need clear heads, moral courage, human compassion, and, above all, a sense of proportion. The main condition for consensus in the 1980s is in fact that we should all grow up. This, unfortunately, may be the most difficult requirement of all.

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  • Michael Howard is Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford University. He is the author of The Franco-Prussian War, The Continental Commitment and War in European History, among other works. This article was originally presented at the Annual Conference of the International Institute for Strategic Studies held in September 1982 in The Hague, and is published by special arrangement with the IISS, which will publish the full Conference proceedings in the spring of 1983. Copyright (c) Michael Howard.
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