150. Address by the Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs (Burt)1

A Critical Juncture for the Atlantic Alliance

This conference could not be more timely. And the need to view trans-Atlantic developments with care could not be more critical. As a former journalist, I am aware that those outside government have the opportunity to observe the ebb and flow of current affairs with a unique perspective. As a government official, I am also aware that this opportunity is not always seized as often as it might be. It is for this reason that TIME and the conference organizers deserve our most sincere thanks and appreciation. Indeed, those of us enmeshed in the day-to-day of policymaking are in need of the criticism and vision of people such as yourselves and gatherings such as this. Without the benefit of perspective, we are less likely to shape historical forces than to be shaped by them.

I believe we have arrived at a critical juncture in the annals of the Atlantic alliance. Let me hasten to add that this is not because we are in a deep crisis as some would have us believe. Rather, we are in the midst of what can best be described as a grand debate. It is a debate over the very essence of the Atlantic alliance—its purpose, its shape, its future.

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This is hardly the first time the alliance has been in the throes of self-examination and self-criticism. Indeed, the Atlantic alliance was born amidst controversy. The entire notion of peacetime engagement in the affairs of Europe went against the grain of American history. Postwar America was anxious to bring its boys back home and bring about a parochial peace with prosperity.

Nor were the formative years of the alliance easy ones for Europeans. Reconstruction and recovery were foremost in everyone’s mind. Arming to prevent yet another war demanded all too scarce resources; forging bonds of trust with recent foes demanded the intellectual courage to look ahead rather than back.

But on both sides of the ocean, the uncommon men of the immediate postwar era made difficult, and sometimes unpopular, decisions. In the United States, two world wars had shown all too clearly the folly of isolationism. It was understood that Jefferson’s famous injunction against “entangling alliances” did not have permanent application. In Europe it was understood that the security of the Continent against the emerging Soviet threat required permanent association with a noncontinental power. Out of these twin recognitions the alliance came to life. The initial debate had been decided.

The alliance of the 1950s was an alliance overwhelmingly dominated by the United States. Deterrence depended on U.S. nuclear superiority to offset a Red Army which never demobilized. Decisions were largely reached in Washington and communicated through NATO in Paris. For the most part, we spoke, Europe listened; we led, Europe followed.

By the 1960s it was increasingly evident that such a formula had grown obsolete. Europe was no longer prostrate. Economic recovery had succeeded. The alliance was no longer based on a simple security guarantee but had evolved into a true military coalition with integrated national forces. And Europeans were less and less willing to accept American leadership without question. The conditions for a second great debate had materialized.

Many of the strains accompanying these developments were manifested in the nuclear realm. Then, as today, nuclear politics went to the heart of the alliance. Two principal issues emerged in the nuclear debate of the 1960s. The problem was in part military. The American guarantee was no longer as convincing, given Soviet strides in developing their nuclear arsenal. How could the U.S. strategic deterrent compensate for conventional weakness and deter Soviet strategic forces simultaneously? Equally, the problem was political. Europeans wanted some say in the life-and-death decisions affecting nuclear weapons.

Washington’s proposed approach for dealing with these problems—the NATO multilateral nuclear force—only exacerbated these tensions. Fortunately, the ultimate solution had the opposite effect. The doctrine [Page 592] of flexible response, formally adopted by the alliance in 1967,2 provided for a continuum of forces—conventional, theater nuclear, and strategic nuclear—by which deterrence could be maintained at all levels. And a new institution, the NATO Nuclear Planning Group, was created.3 Responsibility for nuclear policymaking would henceforth be shared. The basic Atlantic bond was maintained.

Evolution of the Current Debate

But in the best tradition of Hegelian logic, yesterday’s synthesis has given way to today’s antithesis. There is no little irony in this. In the 1960s, European concerns reflected a perceived lack of U.S. commitment to maintain the American nuclear guarantee; in the 1980s, the most vocal elements in Europe view with alarm American efforts to ensure the credibility of this same nuclear guarantee.

Thus, in 1983, we are once more hearing from many quarters that the alliance is no longer relevant, or viable, or both; that only radical surgery can prolong the patient’s life. If I read the signs correctly, a third grand debate is underway. The reasons for this happening now are several.

First, the passage of time has dulled the initial Atlantic impulse; the alliance no longer seems as relevant to the concerns of young people bearing outlooks formed by experiences far from those of the postwar era.

Second, European states and institutions have advanced in capacity, wealth, and independence. Many on both sides of the Atlantic view the alliance as an anachronism, a product of an era of American strength and European weakness which no longer exists.

Third, U.S. and European interests are not always identical or even complementary. We are often economic competitors. We often have differing views of Third World or regional crises. We at times have contrasting assessments of the Soviet Union, the threat it poses, and how best to manage East-West relations.

Fourth, a prolonged period of economic recession has increased competition for budgetary allocations. Providing more for defense and deciding how much each member of the alliance ought to provide are increasingly contentious.

Finally, shifts in the military balance and the emergence of U.S.-Soviet strategic parity, in particular, have raised anew the issue of American reliability. The credibility of the U.S. strategic deterrent is sometimes doubted. The emergence of Soviet superiority at the intermediate [Page 593] nuclear level has raised new questions as to the coupling of the defense of Europe and the U.S. strategic deterrent.

That a great debate over the future of the Atlantic alliance should evolve out of such circumstances is hardly odd; indeed, it would be odd if one were not to take place. Not surprisingly, we are seeing challenges to the basic Atlantic model coming from all parts of the political spectrum. Both sides of the Atlantic are participating. What I should like to do today is make my modest contribution to this debate.

American Challenges to the Atlantic Model

In the United States, it is significant that we are not witnessing a revival of traditional isolationism. Fortress America is not being promoted as a model of American well-being. Perhaps the notion is simply too discredited to hold much attraction; perhaps most have simply come to accept that the United States is too dependent upon, and interdependent with, the rest of the world to pursue this simplistic and dangerous option.

Other challenges to the Atlantic connection exist, however. There is, for example, an American school of thought that has come to be known as “global unilateralism.” Adherents of this school begin with an appreciation of the global scope of U.S. interests. They note the broad range of possible threats to the United States. And they would reduce the U.S. commitment to Europe so that we could enhance our flexibility to act everywhere.

This approach is flawed. All interests are not vital; all are not equal. The balance of power in Europe is central to world stability and American involvement in Europe is central to the balance there. Moreover, our range of ties, commercial and cultural, cannot be duplicated or done without. The reality is that there is no cheap way of protecting these interests. Deterrence, to be credible, requires a large U.S. continental commitment; it also requires that we act together as a true coalition.

A second challenge is perhaps better known to you. For want of a better phrase, I call it “Atlantic reconstruction.” It manifests itself in several places—the Congress and the media most notably—and in several ways by, for example, threatening troop withdrawals or not funding defense programs critical to the defense of Europe.

The roots of this American movement are to be found in the soil of frustration and resentment. There is a growing belief in the United States that Europeans are not doing their share, be it to defend themselves or to defend common interests around the world. Sometimes tied to this view is the belief that Europe’s commitment to detente outweighs its commitment to the alliance, that Europe is more concerned with its economic well-being than with Western defense. The [Page 594] reconstructionists want to end this alleged “free ride.” They wish to send a signal to Europe to stimulate a larger European defense effort.

As is often the case, neither analysis nor prescription is accurate. That we all need to do more to strengthen deterrence is obvious. And that there is a requirement for equity on defense efforts in a coalition of democratic states is also clear. More must be done, and the Reagan Administration has worked hard to increase defense spending on both sides of the Atlantic. At the same time, we have sought to deflate misconceptions about allied contributions to the common defense. There is not enough awareness, for example, that should conflict arise in Europe, 90% of NATO’s land forces and 75% of its sea and air forces would be European.

There are those who argue that we could improve the situation by cutting U.S. efforts. I do not doubt that by doing less in Europe the United States would, indeed, “send a signal.” Unfortunately, it would be the wrong signal with the wrong result. In the name of enhancing deterrence and defense, those who would cut back America’s contribution could well achieve precisely the opposite. Reducing U.S. strength and raising questions about the U.S. commitment are hardly self-evident ways of promoting peace and stability.

European Alternatives

An even greater debate is taking place on this side of the Atlantic. This is to be expected, given the immediacy of the issues here. Let me address briefly what I see as the principal alternatives being presented.

Neutralism. Three schools of thought appear to dominate. The first would exchange the alliance for neutralism. Some go as far as to see this neutralism embracing all of Europe, West and East. It is argued that a Europe without allegiance to either bloc and without significant military forces would be a safer haven, less likely to be drawn into a confrontation between the two superpowers. Somewhat differently, it is asserted that Europe (and especially Germany) could make its most important contribution to peace by serving as a bridge between the two superpowers, explaining one to the other.

These are romantic visions. With or without its Eastern neighbors, a weak and neutral Western Europe would be under the sway of the strongest continental power, the Soviet Union. What is needed for peace is less a bridge than a bulwark. Our problems with the U.S.S.R. are not caused by a lack of communication, although communication is important. Our problems with the U.S.S.R are caused by a lack of Soviet restraint and respect for the interests and well-being of others.

Armed Independence. Some recognize these realities and, instead, argue for a Western Europe that is strong, independent of the United [Page 595] States, and able to provide fully for its own security. An image of a European military entity is held up, the analogue to European political cooperation and economic integration. In this model, Europe would thus be able to mediate between the two powers from a position of strength—able to deter one without being tied to the other. European interests would prosper, we are told.

I can do no better in describing this school of thought than by quoting Hedley Bull of Oxford University:

The course that the Western European countries should now be exploring may be called the Europeanist one. It requires the countries of Western Europe to combine more closely together, increase their defense efforts, and take steps toward reducing their military dependence on America.

Professor Bull’s vision, too, suffers from a lack of realism. Europe at present lacks the requisite political basis for constituting such collective management of its security. It is not clear that European states would be willing to make the necessary political commitments and economic investment. And it is not at all certain that the emergence of an independent, armed Europe—with conventional and nuclear forces alike—could occur without crisis or even conflict. Indeed, the security and stability we all know and enjoy now could be jeopardized by such development.

Reconstruction. A third approach is embodied by proposals now coming from opposition parties in northern Europe. In many respects, these ideas are the mirror image of the proposals offered by American reconstructionists. The European reconstructionists have several goals: to lessen the influence of the United States; to reduce the likelihood of nuclear war in Europe; to carry out a more independent policy toward Moscow; and to promote European interests around the world as they see fit. They seek not to leave the alliance so much as to change it from within.

Even such “reformist” policies are not without major difficulties; indeed, they draw upon several of the worst features of the two alternatives just discussed. We should not delude ourselves. Conventional defense needs strengthening. But more robust conventional defense efforts will not make nuclear forces irrelevant or redundant. Soviet conventional and nuclear advantages must be offset, whether by deployments, arms reductions, or both. The bond between forces in Europe and U.S. strategic deterrence, or coupling, must be maintained. At the same time, conventional force improvements will prove costly; a consensus for a major increase in the level of defense effort has yet to emerge. And heightened European independence from the United States has its risks; Europeans cannot choose when they wish to enjoy the fruits [Page 596] of alliance and when they do not. There is room for disagreement and difference within the alliance but not for selective commitment.

Other Concepts

Neutralism, armed independence, reconstruction—these are the three basic European alternatives to the current Atlanticist framework for Western security. Cutting across these approaches are various themes which would also alter the current Atlantic bridge in a decisive manner.

Antinuclearism is one such idea. The aim is to reduce or, if possible, eliminate the presence of nuclear weapons in Europe and with them the risk of nuclear war. The most ardent enthusiasts of this proposition would do so unilaterally in hopes of eliciting parallel Soviet restraint.

But I agree with [former Secretary of Defense] Harold Brown’s observation about U.S.-Soviet arms competition: “When we build, the Soviet Union builds; and when we don’t build, the Soviet Union still builds.” Moreover, unilateral actions by the West would undermine our best chance for meaningful arms control negotiations. More seriously, unilateral nuclear disarmament would threaten deterrence and heighten the vulnerability of the West, too.

Nor can there be a policy of “no first use” of nuclear weapons. The effect would once again be decoupling and thus erode, not enhance, deterrence. It is the prospect of the use of nuclear weapons and the full weight of American might which helps to keep the peace in Europe.

Wishing away the possibility that nuclear weapons will be used is not enough. Declarations are simply words. Meanwhile, Soviet conventional, chemical, and nuclear capabilities are real and increasing. Were the alliance to adopt a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons, the danger of conventional war—which would be incredibly destructive in our age—would be increased and with it the possibility of nuclear tragedy. More than 50 million people perished in World War II; we cannot adopt policies which would heighten the risk of conventional, not to mention nuclear, war in Europe.

Lastly, there are those who remain within the alliance or Atlantic house but who place all their hopes on arms control. Arms control—whether some version of a nuclear freeze or negotiations more broadly—is held up as the panacea for Europe’s dilemma. Only arms control, it is alleged, offers the means to limit the threat, reduce the levels of weapons and the spending on them, and promote renewed detente.

But such hopes cannot live in isolation. Arms control will only prosper if the Soviet Union has incentive to negotiate; what is required to bring this about is a sound military foundation on our part. Nor can arms control be expected to persuade the Soviet leadership to eschew the role of force; Soviet policy at home and abroad depends on it too [Page 597] much. Arms control has the potential to buttress our security and deterrence; it cannot take the place of our collective efforts to do the same.

What Is at Stake

In more normal times, debates involving competing conceptions of alliance security would be welcomed. Over years or even decades, we would perhaps create a new consensus. But 1983 is not a normal time. To the contrary, 1983 could well turn out to be the most important year in the history of the Atlantic alliance since its inception.

The reason for so stating is clear. To a degree unlike any other year since 1949, the determination and credibility of the alliance are being tested. How we implement the December 1979 decision on intermediate nuclear forces will have a major impact on our future. Those who would apply their abstract or idealized notions of how best to structure the Atlantic relationship to determine the outcome of the INF [intermediate-range nuclear forces] debate should only do so with a full understanding of what is at stake.

Not surprisingly, this temptation exists. There are those in the United States who wonder why we should go to such lengths to bring about the implementation of the decision. They are unhappy that so many facets of the U.S.-European relationship are held hostage to the INF decision and cite the possibility that deployment of U.S. missiles in Europe could heighten the risk of a direct Soviet nuclear attack on the American homeland.

On this side of the Atlantic, there are those—particularly the new neutralists—who maintain precisely the opposite. They argue that new U.S. weapons based on the Continent would enable us to localize or limit an East-West nuclear exchange to Europe. Others simply argue that the new missiles are not necessary because the Soviet Union has no intention of exploiting its current INF monopoly. Or, in yet another variation, there are those who are prepared to wait indefinitely for arms control to solve the security problem created by SS–20 deployment. In every case, they seek to opt out of implementing the 1979 decision.

The fallacies in each of these approaches are manifest. The United States cannot be secure for long in a world in which Western Europe is not. Americans who would weaken or remove the U.S. nuclear guarantee would jeopardize the prospects for stability and peace everywhere. In the name of reducing risk to themselves, they will have raised it for everyone.

European opponents of deployment are also mistaken. The effect of new U.S. missiles would not be to limit or localize a nuclear exchange in Europe but rather to prevent one. Indeed, it is in part through the threat of escalation and full American involvement that we help to promote stability and deterrence in Europe. Indeed, no better proof for this [Page 598] proposition exists than Defense Minister Ustinov’s recent comment that the Soviet Union would respond to a strike by U.S. systems in Europe by directly attacking the United States. If that’s not coupling, I don’t know what is.

Those who maintain no new deployments are needed, whether owing to Soviet good will or the prospects of arms control, are simply deluding themselves. It is probably true that Western Europe could live with a Soviet preponderance of force; but to expect the Soviets not to exploit any advantage for its own paranoic, political purposes is to ignore every lesson of history. Similarly, the U.S.S.R. cannot be expected to negotiate seriously in the absence of any incentive to do so; deployment, either in promise or in fact, remains our best and only way to get the Soviets to come to the negotiating table in good faith.

In short, the implementation of the INF double-track decision has become the touchstone for Western security in the 1980s. The decision continues to have a sound political and a sound military rationale. It was taken in response to an unprovoked Soviet buildup which continues unabated. It represents continued alliance commitment to a concept of deterrence predicated on the notion that American power tied to Europe is the best way of promoting European stability and peace. The commitment of the Reagan Administration and allied governments to pursuing both tracks—arms control and, if need be, deployment—of the 1979 decision is now unshakeable.

My support for decisions taken some 3½ years ago and my criticism of various alternative visions of the alliance should not be interpreted as complacency. The flaws of the various alternatives I have described should not be taken as a complete dismissal of their validity. Nor should it be understood as a complete endorsement of the status quo. If I may modify an old American adage for my purposes here tonight, I would simply advise against fixing the alliance more than it is broken. Or, to shift metaphors, I would simply urge you to beware of cures worse than the disease.

This is not a call for standing pat. Reform is needed. So too is close consultation. We must upgrade not only our nuclear deterrent but also our conventional forces. More must be done to safeguard common interests outside the formal treaty area. We must ensure that our commercial relations with the East are consistent with our political and security requirements. And we must continue to be imaginative and flexible in our search for meaningful arms control agreements.

We must be careful, though, in how we proceed. Europe in the 30 years since the Second World War has been spared armed conflict. We have achieved levels of prosperity and freedom without historical precedent. Too much is at stake to go ahead precipitously or recklessly. The [Page 599] alliance and the basic Atlantic model or structure remain relevant and viable. Only within its contours can we harness the resources of the West in a manner which maximizes effectiveness and minimizes the burden on our free societies and strained economies.

There is a wonderful line from the novel, The Leopard, by the Italian author Giuseppe di Lampedusa. “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” To a degree this is true. Indeed, the history of the alliance is a series of adaptations to evolving circumstances. The alliance of 1983 is not the alliance of 1949.

Yet, there must also be limits to our departures. The essentials of the Atlantic model that is the alliance have served us well and should be saved. The alliance can continue to safeguard our interests if we are as wise about what to keep as we are about what to change.

  1. Source: Department of State Bulletin, August 1983, pp. 50–54. All brackets are in the original. Burt addressed the TIME conference on the Atlantic Alliance.
  2. See footnote 2, Document 91.
  3. Established by the North Atlantic Council in December 1966.