Rethinking NATO—For Real


All of a sudden the idea that Western Europe should take on the burden of its own defense (a recurring theme in REASON) has moved into the mainstream. In March, Time magazine gave five pages to Henry Kissinger's plan to "reshape NATO," suggesting a phased withdrawal of up to half the US troops and the transfer of greater control to Europeans. Irving Kristol has gone further, in the New York Times Magazine, suggesting the "shock treatment" of complete withdrawal to force creation of an "all-European NATO." Defense analyst Earl Ravenal, economist Melvyn Krauss, and columnist William Safire have all been sounding similar themes, and Harper's ran a long panel discussion, "Should the U.S. Stay in NATO?" in April.

The principal arguments have by now become well-known. First, the credibility of the American "nuclear umbrella" over Europe has all but evaporated. What US president would actually unleash a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union (thereby risking the survival of this country) in an attempt to save Europe from a Soviet invasion? Second, long-term dependence on American troops and dollars has undermined Europeans' willingness to take seriously their own defense, as indicated by their relatively low levels of defense spending—and their susceptibility to naive peace movements.

Interestingly, even some European leaders seem to appreciate these points. French president Francois Mitterrand has said that "one must not give oneself up to the protection of a country outside our continent." His rival Jacques Chirac has spoken out strongly in favor of "European defense." David Owen, leader of Britain's new Social Democratic Party, has called for Europe to take control of its own defense, freeing itself from US domination. And even former West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt now agrees that America's dominance of NATO is unhealthy and that a partial withdrawal of US troops "would not necessarily be a misfortune."

Unfortunately, inherent in the thinking of nearly all of these people is a basic fallacy. What's essential, agree Kissinger and Kristol, is that the Europeans engage in a massive buildup of their conventional forces, so as to be able to withstand a Soviet invasion—without resorting to nuclear weapons. (The dismal alternative, says Kristol, is a Finlandized detente with the Soviet Union.)

Generals are notorious for preparing to fight the last war, and statesmen and intellectuals are prone to make the same error. Overwhelming evidence indicates that the most likely Soviet threat to Europe is a decapitating surprise attack on (unprotected) NATO military installations—using nuclear, chemical, and conventional munitions, along with "Spetsnaz" sabotage teams.

This type of scenario is clearly spelled out in Soviet military literature, which makes no distinction between "conventional" and nuclear/chemical/biological operations. (See Joseph Douglass and Amoretta Hoeber's Soviet Strategy for Nuclear War and Viktor Suvorov's Inside the Red Army for details.) A lightning strike that destroyed NATO's military capability before it could be used would avert nuclear retaliation while opening the way for Soviet domination of a disarmed—but intact—Europe. That has to make far more sense to the Soviets than a World War II–style tank invasion.

Thus, a massive buildup of conventional or even high-tech nonnuclear battlefield weapons would have little real military usefulness—or deterrent value. There are also serious questions about the vulnerability of the much-touted high-tech weapons to spoofing and other countermeasures. Moreover, because conventional weapons are much more costly, kiloton for kiloton, than nuclear weapons, the conventional-forces alternative is much less likely to be judged "affordable" by European politicians. So if that really is the only alternative to Finlandization, the odds for Europe's independence are not great.

What most advocates of rethinking NATO have not faced up to is the nuclear alternative. What would actually deter a Soviet surprise attack on Europe? Not thousands of useless antitank weapons. What the Soviets fear most is survivable nuclear retaliatory forces under European control—especially West German control. If a European Defense Force is to be credible, that's what's going to be required.

To be usable, such nuclear forces must meet several criteria. First, they must be mobile so that they have a realistic chance of surviving a surprise attack. Second, they must be highly accurate, so that they can be used solely against military targets without wiping out cities (thereby inviting counterstrikes against Bonn, London, and Paris). Third, they must be of low yield, especially when aimed at Soviet forces in Eastern European countries, whose people should be reassured that they are not the targets, only their Soviet occupiers. Fourth, many of these weapons should be capable of reaching the Soviet Union, whose military installations should be a prime target of retaliation.

What's striking about these requirements is how closely they parallel the attributes of the Pershing II and cruise missiles now being installed in Europe (unfortunately, under US control, paid for by US citizens, and at vulnerable, fixed sites). These attributes are sadly lacking in the present British and French nuclear forces, which are mostly inaccurate city-busting ballistic missiles and very short-range tactical nukes. What's needed is to replace these dangerous, obsolete weapons with new-generation nuclear weapons solely under European control.

Armed with credible nuclear weapons, Europe could easily defend itself. And the Western world would be much safer if it did. As Harvard's Adam Ulam, a respected Sovietologist, puts it, "The Soviet nightmare is that Western Europe will unite politically and rearm itself vigorously, thereby leaving the Soviet Union facing two superpowers instead of one." Our self-protective aim, as Melvyn Krauss has declared, should be to help make that nightmare a reality.