NATO without the Pact

April 02, 1991

Now that the Warsaw Pact has officially dissolved as a military organization, the dithering over the future of NATO must come to a halt. The Persian Gulf war demonstrated that while West Europeans are incapable of coherent collective action in a crisis outside their own continent, the NATO roster also produced a number of allies -- Britain foremost.

This says little, however, about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in the post-Cold War world. The U.S. was able to deploy 90,000 of its 300,000 NATO-based troops to the gulf war theater, thus achieving a measure of mobility that would have been denied if all U.S. forces had to be moved from the American mainland.

This asset was mainly a function of geography. It was not NATO power but U.S. power that threw Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. As American forces gradually withdraw from the gulf, those who were assigned to Germany will return there, some for only a short time. Barring a change of plans because of Soviet chaos or recalcitrance, there will be a drawdown of some 40,000 U.S. troops from Europe by Sept. 30. By mid-decade, the force may be down to one-half or one-third of present strength.

Such a major development is largely reactive -- a response to the freeing of Eastern Europe and the disappearance of a Soviet land assault as a credible threat to Western Europe. Western strategic thinkers have been laboring with indifferent success to be proactive -- to come up with a plan that caters both to the U.S. desire to remain a major player in Europe and to Europeans seeking a more independent military role.

In recent months, the most popular idea on the other side of the Atlantic would see the near-defunct Western European Union (WEU) transmogrified into a military structure that would act as a "bridge" between a U.S.-led NATO and the European Community. Its ostensible function would be to produce a multi-national European force for deployment into Third World trouble spots.

Because of built-in liabilities and ambiguities, the United States is rightly wary. William H. Taft IV, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, has said that this country does not want an an EC-based "cabal" within the Western Alliance. This is in recognition of the inherent economic rivality between the EC and the U.S., plus the fact that only the United States can offset the still mighty nuclear arsenal of the Soviet Union.

More than a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the future of NATO is so murky that an alliance-wide summit meeting devoted to the subject has been put on hold. NATO is essential to the U.S. interest in maintaining a powerful presence in Europe. But the gulf war suggested that a formal U.S.-European military alliance operating in the Third World may be a chimera. The norm may become what we have seen in the Persian Gulf -- ad hoc coalitions led by the only real superpower around.

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