The war against Serbia is the Banquo’s ghost of NATO’s fiftieth-anniversary celebration in Washington. Disappointing partygoers and policy wonks alike, it has dampened plans for the gala (no black tie, no Barbra Streisand) and prompted the alliance to postpone decisions about new members. The war has, however, answered concretely the important issue the summit was to address: when and if the alliance would be intervening outside the territory of its members. Still, two crucial questions remain unanswered. The first–why is NATO still in business?–leads inevitably to the second–why do US policy-makers still think American leadership in Europe vital? After all, the Soviet threat has vanished, and the Western Europeans certainly have the resources to provide for their own security.
With the Warsaw Pact’s collapse, both NATO and US leadership in Europe would seem to have outlived their usefulness. Yet, far from disappearing, at Washington’s prompting NATO has both expanded geographically (adding Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic) and redefined its strategic mission. The “new” NATO is being tested in Kosovo–where US and alliance officials have declared that the alliance must prevail to establish its credibility, lest a pall be cast over its golden anniversary gala. Rather than celebrating the alliance’s fiftieth birthday as a prelude to NATO’s second halfcentury, it is long past time for Americans to ask whether a continued US military role in Europe is either necessary or justifiable. To answer these questions, we have to examine the assumptions, spoken and otherwise, that underlie America’s European strategy.
In the early cold war years, the United States, through its dominant role in NATO, assumed responsibility for defending Western Europe from the Soviet Union because immediately after World War II that area was clearly incapable of protecting itself. Yet, by the mid-sixties, the Western Europeans had staged a vigorous economic recovery, and the Soviet Union’s objective in Europe was obviously to maintain, rather than overthrow, the post-1945 status quo. Indeed, even the hawkish former Reagan Administration Pentagon official Fred Ikle has suggested that any serious likelihood of Soviet aggression against Western Europe had already vanished by the end of the fifties. So why then did the United States persist in its strategy long after it was apparent that, if indeed really threatened at all, Western Europe was capable of providing for its own security? And why did the United States continue to insist–as it still does–that a US-led NATO was the indispensable foundation of any European security architecture, thus consistently blocking proposals that would have given Western Europe the responsibility for its own defense?
Although the continuity and fundamental goals of America’s role in Europe are in many ways obscured by focusing on the containment of its cold war enemy, they are illuminated by examining the containment of its allies. By providing for Germany’s security and by enmeshing its military and foreign policies into an alliance that it dominated, the United States contained its erstwhile enemy, preventing its “partner” from embarking upon independent foreign and military policies. This stabilized relations among the states of Western Europe, for by controlling Germany, the United States–to use a current term in policy-making circles–“reassured” Germany’s neighbors that they would not be threatened by the resurgence of German power (a resurgence that was necessary both to contain the Soviet Union and to insure a prosperous Western European and world economy). The leash of America’s security leadership thereby reined in the dogs of war. By, in effect, banishing power politics, NATO protected the states of Western Europe from themselves.