What Next for NATO?

Get the superpowers out of Europe


The Western alliance, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, is in disarray. The fissures among its members were growing even before Mikhail Gorbachev's accession to power in the Soviet Union. But now the Soviet "great communicator," who used a speech to the United Nations in December to announce unilateral troop reductions in Eastern Europe, is threatening to emasculate NATO.

Observes foreign policy analyst Christopher Layne, "Gorbachev has been able to manipulate Western European perceptions of the Soviet threat and in so doing undermine NATO's cohesion and support for nuclear force modernization and conventional military buildup." In fact, a recent poll in West Germany, the front-line state most at risk, found that 75 percent of respondents didn't believe the Soviets pose a threat to their nation; people ranked defense spending last among the 17 listed budget priorities.

Not that the formal collapse of NATO is imminent. But the alliance is increasingly incapable of responding to the Soviet challenge. "We are continually allowing ourselves to be caught off guard and put on the defensive," says Layne. Unless the United States develops its own initiatives for reducing continental military tensions, NATO threatens to become an expensive but militarily ineffective alliance torn by constant squabbling.

There is an alternative. Washington should immediately press for unrestricted arms reduction talks to build on Gorbachev's latest proposal. By advocating mutual superpower disengagement, the United States should indicate its willingness to fundamentally transform the European military landscape. That goal is ambitious, but nevertheless worth pursuing. "Gorbachev has given us virtually everything we've wanted," says Hudson Institute analyst Jeffrey Record, including elimination of the SS-20 missiles, withdrawal from Afghanistan, and pullbacks in Central Europe. So "maybe he's prepared to give us more."

Four decades ago, Europe was still digging out of the rubble left by six years of total war. Stalin's Red Army quickly subjugated the states it had "liberated." The only thing that blocked Moscow from imposing its rule on Western Europe was America's threat to intervene. But no one believed that Europe would not one day recover and thereafter be able to look after its own affairs. In fact, Secretary of State Dean Acheson told Congress that American troops were to be stationed in Europe only temporarily, to act as a shield until Europe was able to stand on its own.

But a crutch once relied on is not easily abandoned. Even as Britain and France rebuilt their economies and West Germany regained its sovereignty, U.S. forces remained. And NATO chose to respond to Soviet conventional superiority with the threat of massive nuclear retaliation. As long as the United States maintained an overwhelming nuclear advantage, extended deterrence was viable. But during the 1960s and 1970s, as the United States lost that decisive superiority, the threat of a nuclear response to a conventional attack lost credibility.

In fact, in 1983 former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara revealed that he had advised both Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson not to initiate the use of nuclear weapons to save Europe. And today, while the possibility that Washington would ignite a global nuclear war in response to a Warsaw Pact invasion may have some deterrent effect on the Soviet Union, the Europeans would be foolish to assume that an American president would commit national suicide, sacrificing dozens of U.S. cities to prevent the Soviet flag from flying over Bonn and Paris.

As a result of its reliance on the nuclear threat, NATO has been left with an apparent conventional inferiority that the Pentagon has used incessantly to justify increased U.S. military spending. In reality, the gap—expressed in such hideous ratios as 1.4 to 1 in troops, 1.5 to 1 helicopters, 2 to 1 in combat aircraft, 3.1 to 1 in tanks, and 3.1 to 1 in artillery—has always looked worse on paper than it really is on the field. The West possesses better-trained soldiers and more-advanced equipment; its units are more combat ready, and it has roughly as many reservists as the Warsaw Pact. NATO's decentralized command structure would operate better in fluid combat situations. And the Eastern European states are dubious allies at best: since World War II the Soviets have had to crush outright rebellions in East Germany and Hungary, forcibly suppress reform in Czechoslovakia, and threaten an invasion of Poland.

Moreover, in recent years NATO has been outspending the Warsaw Pact and upgrading its forces (largely as a result of U.S. efforts). Charles Price, America's ambassador to Great Britain, commented in 1988 that "the alliance has reached a level of preparedness not seen in years." It may not match the Soviets man for man, but it doesn't have to. NATO need only maintain a sufficient force to deter aggression, and there seems little doubt that the alliance now does so. Observes one NATO planner, "the conventional structure is presently enough to persuade Moscow that an attack would bring costs far beyond any perceived political gains."

To assuage any doubts that NATO does indeed possess such a deterrent capability, the member states could easily augment their forces. The Western nations spend less than half as much per capita as does the Eastern Bloc, and the problem is not the United States. On almost every measure the Europeans' performance is simply dreadful. West Germany, for instance, spends barely 3.0 percent of its GNP on defense, half the U.S. level. While the United States devoted $1,164 per capita to defense in 1986, Germany spent $454. (Some NATO defenders note that Germany has conscription while the United States does not. But it is not clear that the $454 therefore understates Germany's defense spending; studies indicate that reintroducing a draft in the United States would actually hike costs.) Britain, France, and Norway contributed slightly more; everyone else spent less. Since roughly half the U.S. defense budget goes for NATO, American citizens are spending more per person than the Europeans to simply defend Europe.

Were the Europeans to take the Warsaw Pact seriously, they could easily overwhelm the East: NATO's collective GNP is two-and-a-half times that of the Warsaw Pact and its population is 50 percent greater. Even without the United States the Europeans exceed the entire Soviet alliance economically and nearly equal it in population. Moreover, Europe faces no other continental threat, while the Soviet Union has to maintain significant forces on its border with China.

Whatever Europe's capabilities, however, it does not currently appear to have the will to do more. The West German high command, for instance, has warned the Kohl government that without added resources the army will be able to support only 6 of the planned 12 divisions by the end of the century. And even Kohl's conservative government seems unlikely to back a major military buildup when three out of four citizens believe the Soviets constitute no threat. Not that Germany is alone in its apparent indifference to defense. Spain forced the United States to close its Torrejon air base and move a wing of F-16s. Greece seems equally intent on reducing America's military presence, though elections this summer could result in a new, more pro-American government.

For years European states could get away with this sort of irresponsible behavior because Uncle Sam was still there to defend them—with nuclear weapons, if necessary. Now that the intermediate warheads have disappeared from Europe as part of the INF agreement, however, America's promise to use strategic nukes appears less serious and the Warsaw Pact's conventional edge looks more threatening. Since Washington is unlikely to substantially increase military spending, any effort to upgrade NATO's forces will have to come from the Europeans themselves.

Gorbachev, however, may have saved NATO a lot of money. Though his U.N. speech was clearly aimed at making diplomatic points and putting the incoming Bush administration on the defensive, Gorbachev's initiative was, first and foremost, a major military retreat. If the Soviet leader did not propose to unilaterally disarm, his plan was nevertheless "good news," says the Hudson Institute's Jeffrey Record. "On the basis of what he said, and I think we can rely on him to carry out his program, it is a fairly substantial reduction. It is more than military tokenism."

Gorbachev pledged to: reduce total Soviet manpower by 500,000 and tank inventories by 10,000; disband 6 Soviet tank divisions (along with their short-range nuclear weapons, said foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze in January); withdraw from East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary 50,000 soldiers, 8,500 "artillery systems," 5,000 tanks, and 800 combat aircraft; and pull out an unspecified number of assault-landing and river-crossing units from the same three front-line states. The overall manpower reduction may be the least significant, since total Soviet forces are estimated to number 5.2 million, of which some 1.5 million are in noncombatant labor units. But, observes Record, "if you look at what he's cutting where, it substantially reduces the Soviet capacity to do the one thing that NATO has most feared for years-launch a surprise attack."

For instance, withdrawing 10,000 tanks will unequivocally degrade the Soviet Union's offensive capability. Of course, Moscow may demobilize the oldest tanks, of Korean War vintage, but their age has never stopped the Pentagon from including them in the military balance figures in order to show NATO's need for more money. Moreover, in January Gorbachev said that half the tanks to be withdrawn would be "the most modern ones." Says Anthony Cordesman, a Washington, D.C.–based military analyst, "no matter how you slice it, Gorbachev can't make these tank cuts in these areas without seriously affecting their offensive capability."

While leaving the Soviets with clear numerical superiority, the artillery and aircraft reductions, too, will reduce the edge that would be useful, and probably necessary, in any attempt to overwhelm the West. Disbanding 6 of the 16 Soviet tank divisions in Eastern Europe may be even more important, since NATO has always feared a blitzkrieg through Germany's central plains.

But perhaps most significant of all is Gorbachev's pledge to reduce the Soviet's assault forces. Though less glamorous than tank divisions, these units would be at the forefront of any invasion. Admits one NATO official, "this certainly helps stability by reducing the chances of a bolt-from-the-blue attack." Even Christopher Donnelly, head of Soviet Studies Research at Great Britain's Sandhurst Military Academy, and a Gorbachev skeptic, acknowledges that a major cutback in this area "could make a lot of difference in their ability to attack."

CIA Director William Webster made a similar point in December. Though the withdrawal would eliminate only part of the Warsaw Pact's military edge, he said, "they will substantially reduce the ability…to launch a surprise, short-warning attack." In sum, as a dramatic change in past Soviet policy, Gorbachev's plan should be used to initiate efforts to substantially reduce military spending in both West and East and to eventually eliminate America's role in defending Europe.

In response, Washington should push for large-scale, bilateral troop cuts during the ongoing Negotiations on Conventional Armed Forces (CAFE). Those talks essentially succeed 16 years of fruitless discussions under the rubric of the Mutual Balanced Force Reduction negotiations, which drowned in the minutiae of arms control and were insufficiently far-reaching. If NATO again presses for narrow reductions, CAFE will likely suffer the same fate.

Instead of fighting over "cuts in this or that," argues David Calleo, director of European Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, our approach should be to decide "what we want for the final security arrangement that will make us all feel and be more secure." Given Europe's ability to stand on its own, that goal should be the complete withdrawal of superpower military forces from the continent. Layne, for instance, suggests that the Bush administration propose removing all U.S. and Soviet nuclear and conventional forces from Central Europe (East and West Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland), demobilizing significant portions of the conventional troops, and pledging not to be the first to reintroduce units in the region. Such a plan, argues Layne, would "wrest the diplomatic initiative from Moscow, casting America as the champion of pan-European aspirations for an end to the continent's artificial division." It would also guarantee the security of both the West and the Soviet Union, since the Eastern European states would pose no threat to West Germany or its neighbors, while operating as a buffer for Moscow.

Of course, the USSR might reject mutual disengagement, since withdrawal would reduce the Politburo's influence in Eastern Europe. Yet Gorbachev has already measurably loosened Moscow's reins over the satellite states, and his planned troop reductions are clearly "driven by domestic economic concerns," says Record, a factor that is likely to grow ever more important. Anyway, we will never know whether such a program is viable unless we propose it. And it is a no-lose proposition: should the Soviets reject mutual disengagement, they would be blamed for the continued superpower militarization of Europe.

If the continent-wide proposal initially fails, Moscow might agree to more-limited cuts. Last year, for instance, Soviet and Czechoslovakian officials suggested creating a "depletion zone" in the central front, with fewer offensive weapons. In 1987 Poland's Wojciech Jaruzelski proposed reducing battlefield nuclear weapons with "the greatest strength and strike precision, which could be used for a sudden attack." Since Gorbachev's initiative includes cuts in assault forces and forward tank divisions, further progress in this area seems possible. And partial withdrawals today could lead to a full pullout tomorrow.

Even with a complete superpower disengagement, Europe would, of course, have to possess some defense capability, "unless the Soviet state collapses, the chances of which seem remote," says Calleo, "Europe will need a military balance to live in reasonable comfort next to the USSR." But Europeans themselves should increasingly provide those forces. Irrespective of Moscow's reaction to a proposal for mutual disengagement, part two of a new U.S. defense strategy should be the steady Europeanization of NATO.

The process has already begun. Germany and France plan to create a joint brigade, and Bonn has suggested establishing an air cavalry division made up of Belgian, British, Dutch, and German troops; more such steps should be encouraged. So, too, should ongoing efforts to make the Western European Union, established in 1948 to encourage cooperative defense efforts among the Europeans, into a more potent organization.

Simple burden-sharing—getting the Europeans to spend more—is not the goal, however. In late December Deputy Defense Secretary William Taft argued that even if the other NATO states do more, the United States must maintain present expenditure levels. "Our view—and we have been emphatic about about this throughout the discussion—is that the United States needs to do at least as much as it is doing, that it can afford to do what it is doing."

This argument only "proves the public choice economic theory," says Ted Galen Carpenter, director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. "These people are out to protect their bureaucratic interest. They don't recognize that changes in the world necessitate changes in military posture; they're just adjusting their justification for the status quo."

After all, Europe has the capability to defend itself. Were the wealthier NATO states simply to spend as much per capita as does the United States, the alliance would move steadily toward parity with the Warsaw Pact. They don't because they can rely on American aid. "Permanent troop establishments abroad," warned Dwight Eisenhower 26 years ago, will "discourage the development of the necessary military strength Western Europeans countries should provide for themselves."

What conceivable justification is there for the United States to impose nearly triple the defense burden on its citizens as does Germany, which faces the greatest invasion threat? Bonn argues that mere statistical measurements undervalue its contribution, which includes the fact that it hosts the bulk of NATO's forces and suffers from constant maneuvers and training missions. However, 245,000 American troops are not stationed in that nation because Bonn selflessly agreed to accept units otherwise destined for, say, Luxembourg. The forces are there to protect Germany. Since that nation derives the most direct benefits from the alliance, it should, in turn, spend the most proportionally on defense.

Indeed, a process of Europeanization would fulfill the original intent of the Western alliance. America's involvement in NATO was supposed to be merely temporary, until the Europeans had recovered. For example, Eisenhower, NATO's first supreme commander, wrote in 1951 that the United States should "establish clear limits" regarding how long America would station troops in Europe. Even Harry Truman, who pushed the treaty through a skeptical Senate, would undoubtedly be shocked to learn that Washington was still subsidizing its wealthy friends. The policy simply doesn't make sense.

Further, only a reduction in America's commitments can bring defense spending into line with reality. Though the Reagan administration undertook a $2-trillion military build-up, that still wasn't enough money to enable Uncle Sam to play world policeman. With U.S. military spending coming down in real terms, force totals have to fall as well. Former Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci warned last year that unless the Pentagon continued to receive real increases of 2 percent a year, cuts would have to be made in "deployable battle groups and some force structure overseas." Europeanizing NATO would make such reductions painless. And while moderate alliance critics such as Calleo support a continued, if smaller, American presence in Europe, there is no reason for the United States to ultimately maintain any military forces on that continent: the Europeans are able to eventually take responsibility for their own defenses.

Some analysts fear that though Europe could defend itself, it won't. The result of an American withdrawal would then be the "Findlandization" of Washington's closest international friends. Yet the Europeans have battled each other for centuries to defend their independence; their experience reflects what Layne calls "the historical tendency of states to balance power centers rather than join a bandwagon." The Europeans are especially unlikely to accede to domination by a power that is visibly decaying. If anything, it is Eastern Europe that seems to be moving toward the Finland model, with greater national autonomy and a growing Soviet reluctance to meddle in internal disputes. (After Gorbachev's U.N. speech, Hungary and East Germany announced that they were reducing their military budgets; Poland, too, is considering military cutbacks.)

In any case, the unlikely prospect of Europe's Finlandization is not worth keeping U.S. troops in Europe and, by extension, threatening to go to war. Finland maintains an independent, democratic, and capitalist system. It avoids offending the Soviets, but that hardly threatens the United States. If Europe's internal dynamics are such that the NATO states would go neutral without an American troop presence, then we should consider ourselves lucky to have discovered our allies' faithlessness in peacetime rather than during a war. If Western Europe, with its independent heritage, strong democratic institutions, and successful market-oriented economies, is unwilling to undertake the relatively modest steps necessary to bolster its defenses after a U.S. pullout, then it is unlikely to hold together in a full-scale war.

As NATO approaches its 40th anniversary, the international marriage partners are suffering from differences that are fast becoming irreconcilable. Where countries disagree over the potential threat as well as the proper response, a strategic divorce is inevitable. And, in contrast to 1949, Europe now has the wherewithal to defend itself; the reliance of numerous advanced industrial states on the United States for their protection has turned them into international welfare queens of the worst sort, profiting from their indolence while sniping at their benefactor.

Gorbachev's unilateral troop withdrawal program comes at a particularly propitious time. But the opportunity will be wasted if the West simply presses for some additional cuts in a few weapon and troop totals. Instead, Washington should push for total, mutual superpower disengagement, a program that would provide enormous economic benefits for both the United States and the Soviet Union while sharply reducing the risk of war in Europe. Such an agreement may seem unlikely, but two years ago no one would have predicted Gorbachev's latest initiative, Moscow's interest in troop reductions in East Asia, the INF agreement, the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, or Moscow's sharp reduction in naval spending. Today it appears the more far-reaching the proposal, the greater its likelihood of success.

In any case, the United States should begin turning over Europe's security to the Europeans, allowing those who benefit most from that continent's defense to foot the bill and call the shots. The world has changed over the last 40 years; politics as usual will no longer suffice. President Bush, observes former National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane, will need "enormous vision and political skill to preside over the alliance at a time when its members are going to be very fractious." Bush can demonstrate that vision and skill by reducing America's military role in Europe and elsewhere around the world.

Contributing Editor Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. He formerly served as a special assistant to President Reagan.