American defense of Europe becomes the issue for NATO on its 35th anniversary
The Western alliance marks its 35th anniversary this week amid considerable introspection and foreboding about the status of the more than 300,000 American troops in Europe and basic allied policies.Skip to next paragraph
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Created on April 4, 1949, during a period of major East-West hostility, the NATO alliance has survived several other phases of internal and external tension , as well as equally troubling periods of complacency.
If its current leaders are indulging in a bit of self-congratulation at having kept this sometime squabbling coalition together and managed to escape an East-West military conflict, they are also conscious that solutions may at last have to be found to some nagging problems.
Both in NATO headquarters here and in 16 member countries, strategists are in the midst of a fundamental reexamination of NATO doctrine and machinery.
The current phase is perhaps not so dramatic as the ''agonizing reappraisal'' demanded by US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in 1954, President de Gaulle's split with the alliance in 1966, or Henry Kissinger's ''Year of Europe'' outburst 10 years ago. But many regard it as a historic passage following the difficult deployment of a new generation of US nuclear missiles on European soil and the interruption of many East-West negotiations in the wake of leadership transitions in both the United States and the Soviet Union.
This sometimes caustic debate surrounds both military and political attitudes. As in some past episodes, it involves the burdens carried by the United States and Europe toward defense against the Warsaw Pact.
Not since the proposals of the late 1960s - when Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield sought to reduce Europe-based US forces unless other Western governments helped shoulder more of the responsibility - has so much attention been cast in this direction.
The issue reached a peak in recent suggestions by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that these US forces might be reduced by half.
''If nuclear weapons remain the ultimate deterrent to even conventional attack,'' he said, ''a gradual withdrawal of a substantial proportion, perhaps up to half, of our present ground forces would be the logical result.''
Although some elements of the Kissinger suggestions about the so-called ''Europeanization'' of Western defense have been supported by Europeans, including former West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, his comments have also aggravated European sensitivity.
Dismayed West German officials have shown skepticism about the wisdom of improving conventional NATO capability to match the existing Warsaw Pact superiority on the grounds that such improvements would reduce the credibility of the American nuclear deterrent. Quite clearly, they and other Europeans are also not optimistic about their governments' ability to raise defense spending in a period of economic austerity.
But the discussions about a possible cutback in the US military presence for once may have surfaced at a more propitious time than in the past. They coincide with renewed interest, stimulated by French President Francois Mitterrand, in greater European defense cooperation.