Will NATO ever understand Iceland?

By , John R. Fairlamb is director of national security seminar, department of social science, US Military Academy, West Point. The writer's views do not purport to represent the position of the government or the academy.

Because its national interests are global in scope, the United States must be a global power capable of protecting distant interests. Since American resources are not unlimited, it is natural that the US should seek to extend its global reach by forging strategic consensus with like-minded countries in distant geographic regions. The central policy issue to be resolved is the nature of the foundation upon which strategic consensus is to be built.

Small states seem to be important to superpowers largely in terms of their strategic location or military potential. As in the case of Iceland, this can lead to a dependency relationship in which the smaller state is forced to acquiesce, but which it perceives as contrary to its real interests. Iceland has never and does not now maintain armed forces. Upon joining NATO in 1949, Iceland reaffirmed its intention neither to raise an army nor to maintain military forces of any kind. Largely because of this apparent contradiction, Iceland is frequently perceived as a ''reluctant ally.'' When Icelanders have such little interest in things military, many must wonder why Iceland belongs to a military alliance.

The 1949 acceptance of NATO membership was a contentious decision involving a dramatic change in Icelandic security and foreign policy perspective. In 1945 it was clearly the intention of the Icelandic government to return to a security policy based on neutrality. As the cold war developed, the international security environment was not conducive to this course of action. Iceland joined the UN in 1946, seeking security in the concept of collective security. As events in Eastern Europe unfolded and Soviet intentions became more intelligible in the West, Iceland showed some interest in participating in the formation of a Scandanavian defense pact. After this idea collapsed, and it became obvious that the UN could not insure the sovereignty of small states, Iceland became a founding member of NATO. Thus in a brief span of four years, Iceland experimented with three approaches for guaranteeing security.

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To understand Icelandic defense psychology, it is important to realize that military alliance was viewed as a last resort.

Since World War II, Iceland's foreign policy has been designed to prevent external domination by either superpower. Although a member of NATO, Iceland's perceptions of threat to national security are not dominated by fear of Soviet military capability. Nordic Europe in general and Iceland in particular disagree with the larger, military powers in NATO over the primary values threatened and the best policy approach likely to protect core values. In Iceland the basis of national security is perceived to rest on four pillars: (1) maintenance of a broad social consensus for government, (2) continued economic growth, (3) development of a stable welfare system, and (4) maintenance of a regional balance of power at the lowest possible level of military activity.

Superpowers, in contrast, think of ''threat'' more readily in terms of military-strategic variables. For the US, the maintenance of a strategic balance with the Soviet Union is seen as a prerequisite for national security. In terms of the global strategic balance, the Nordic region is considered crucial by both superpowers. Unfortunately for the smaller and militarily weaker Nordic European states, the superpowers tend to disregard the nonmilitary but nevertheless vital security interests of the smaller states.

Icelanders sense threats from the Soviets only when they are the result of overt actions and unambiguously convey danger to Icelandic security. This is not a trivial observation. It indicates that Icelanders do not perceive an inherent ideological or systemic military threat to be constantly emitting from the Soviet Union.

The primary source of ambivalence in the Icelandic orientation to defense is that the history, culture, and core values upon which Icelanders evaluate threats to national security seem constantly to be in conflict with their present geopolitical circumstances. Icelanders are told that the Soviets are the enemy. They feel instinctively that the real sources of threat lie elsewhere. In many respects, the values Icelanders cherish most are threatened by the measures deemed necessary for physical defense.

Small states are inherently deficient in most of the commonly recognized elements of national power. Of necessity, they are driven to consider different options for furthering their interests in the global political arena. For superpowers, force is frequently a possible option. For weak states such as Iceland, there is a shared feeling that real security requires a conscious policy of deemphasizing force in political relationships.

Because they lack sufficient capability in those elements which traditionally comprise national power, small states tend to be vulnerable in a greater number of areas. Economically, they may depend on a single industry such as fishing or a single resource such as oil.

Therefore, perceptions of threat naturally seem more dangerous when cast in economic terms. Many small states have recently gained independence, and consequently are especially sensitive to actions which might be perceived as infringing on national sovereignty. Because they lack a sufficient military instrument, they may, like Iceland, be drawn to a collective security framework. The opportunity cost they risk is that the threat perceptions of those possessing the military instrument may clash with their nonmilitary, but no less vital, security concerns.

The lesson should be clear. A search for a stable strategic consensus in regions of the world deemed vital to US security based only or largely on a single-minded perception of Soviet threat will fail. Strategic consensus so narrowly based will be inherently unstable due to differing perceptions of the Soviet threat and unanswered concerns over more highly valued national interests.

If the US wishes to form a stable strategic consensus with strategically located smaller states, the context of that consensus must be broadened beyond a simplistic anti-Soviet focus. We must at least offer the prospect that nonmilitary security fears will also be addressed.

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