Historic changes in US and Europe strain NATO ties

The current strains between the two sides of the Atlantic alliance are greater today than ever before during the 30 odd years of NATO's existence.

Perhaps that is not surprising. Neither the United States nor West Europe understands the other as well as it did a generation ago. And transatlantic differences are vigorously exploited by Moscow.

But today's US-European divide goes beyond mutual impatience with each other -- the US over Europe's desire to be more independently European, and Europe insensitive to the US's perception of itself as carrying the Western world's defense burden.

The root of the problem is that neither Americans nor Europeans have paid sufficient attention to the deeper historic changes that have been taking place on both sides of the Atlantic. Hence, neither is well equipped to understand or deal with them.

In Europe, a new generation has reached maturity and power -- one that has no adult recollection of World War II. But it is this generation that finds itself having to deal with the unnatural, built-in time bombs bequeathed to it by the lines drawn on the map by the advancing Soviet armies in 1945.

These lines arbitrarily partitioned the German nation, the most powerful of the peoples of Central Europe. And they forced other peoples of Central and Eastern Europe into an expanded Russian empire.

From these seeds sown 37 years ago have sprung some of the difficulties in relations today between Washington and Bonn.

There is a particularly piquant irony about Poland. In theory, the upheaval there should have been a blow to Moscow's hold on its European empire -- a plus for the West. But it is raising questions about Western unity as much as about Soviet bloc stability.

Compounding problems for the West is the coincidence of this latest crisis within the Atlantic alliance with the Soviet Union's perceived achievement of nuclear parity with the US. And this, in turn, has provoked differing perceptions on either side of the Atlantic about the relative priorities to be given to rearmament and detente.

William E. Griffith, political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, lists this difference of priorities as one of the major contributing factors to anti-Europeanism in the US, and to Europe's failure to understand change in the US.

Another, he says, has been the ''cultural counterrevolution . . . under way in the US against the moral and cultural bohemianism of the New Left in the 1960 s.

''A major component of this, and a major impetus to the political right, has been the revival (in the US) of fundamentalist Protestantism, of which the 'Moral Majority' is only a part. . . . This movement can draw on a group of intellectually first-class publicists and ideologists, the so-called neo-conservative intellectuals. . . .

''Western Europe has neither a cultural counterrevolution nor a Pentecostal religious revival, nor such a group of neo-conservative intellectuals. . . . Indeed, these American phenomena are so foreign to Western Europe as hardly to be comprehensible there.''

Professor Griffith points finally to the shift, not yet fully understood abroad, ''of the power center of the US from the Northeast to the Southwest and far West. This means that those who historically and personally have more sympathy with Europe have lost power; and those with a populist, nationalist tinge, plus those more interested in Asia than Europe, have gained it.

''The net result . . . is a rise of American nationalism, which brings with it less concern and tolerance for allies who seem not to support but to sabotage American politics.''

It would be naive to underestimate the debilitating effect on the alliance of mutual frustrations and mutual impatience. But it would be no less naive to assume that NATO is about to founder under opposing tides of anti-Americanism and anti-Europeanism.

West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt insists that recent polls show 80 percent of West Germans favor a close alliance with the West. One recent poll showed 53 percent of West Germans considered the US West Germany's best friend. A 1980 poll showed West Germans preferred NATO to neutralism by 54 to 27 percent. (In 1961, the percentages were 42 to 40.)

Beyond this there remains an underlying conviction in both the US and Europe that each still needs the other. For all the sniping, both still recognize their common cultural heritage. And Russia has less cultural appeal than ever for most Europeans.

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