Probing the limits of the Western alliance

WHAT can alliance partners reasonably expect of each other? The New Zealand and Australian incidents raise the question once again. How can minor allies presume to challenge the policies of the United States, their chief protector? How can Belgium and the Netherlands say no thanks to missiles requested by the Europeans in the first place? How can Greece up its conditions for allied base rights and court NATO opponents with impunity? The Reagan administration may be ready to put its foot down over alliance obligations. But to NATO policymakers this should really be old hat. So old that the reported fear of contamination to other allies is somewhat puzzling. For years the alliance has been living with official Danish and Norwegian recalcitrance. Neither country allows the basing of allied troops on its soil in peacetime, in Norway's case a policy that is as old as NATO itself. Neither country allows the storage of allied nuclear weapons on its soil. It has also been officially stated Norwegian policy to ``assume'' -- without inspection -- that visiting allied naval units do not carry nuclear weapons.

Even though not novel, could events in ANZUS be the straw that broke the camel's back? In that case one should have a second look at the basis for US reactions.

First of all, current official rhetoric encourages the mistaken idea in US public opinion that small allies would immediately fall prey to Soviet aggression if they were not protected by the US. The idea of a constantly imminent threat encourages Americans to see an independent-minded small ally as something like a drowning person setting conditions for his rescue. A more appropriate image might be that of someone being offered passage on a ship instead of having to use his canoe for a dangerous ocean crossing -- and wanting a say in his terms of passage.

Second, most US alliance partners are democratic countries. In security and foreign affairs, deviant views -- foolish or wise -- must be allowed to come forth. Sometimes alliance critics will have sufficient support to let them dictate the government's views, as has happened in New Zealand, in Denmark, and elsewhere. This is part of the challenge of maintaining an alliance of democratic nations. It also ought to be NATO's fundamental difference from the opposing alliance.

Third -- and perhaps most important -- all of NATO's smaller members have a history of neutrality. As the cold war set in, these would-be neutrals realized that nonalignment and neutrality were no longer feasible for them. Rather than be assaulted again, they chose their side in advance, the side they felt would support their own kind of ideals. In so doing they also placed their territories and resources at the potential disposal of their allies.

Nevertheless, in many of these societies the tradition of neutrality still has a place. There is often a strong undercurrent of distrust of great powers, whether allies or not. This ``neutralist'' distrust must be accepted as part of the working environment of NATO if one wants that alliance to continue in its present form. In fact, it is unusual historically to see a great power like the US enjoy -- for so long -- the friendship and basic support of so many smaller allies. Having fairly unfettered access to their territories and resources is part of the current US power base. If Spain refuses nuclear weapons storage on its territory, that is its natural right even as an ally. And if Spain expels US personnel on charges of spying (as evidently happened recently), this may serve as a reminder that an alliance is not necessarily a free pass for entry, nor a simple means of control.

Alliances tend to work best as marriages of convenience, serving interests on both sides. In the range of options of a great power, an alliance with a small state is probably preferable to having to move in by force to occupy that territory in an emergency. As a vehicle of control over democratic nations, however, it may require a finer hand at the reins than those currently in place in Washington.

Olav Fagelund Knudsen is a visiting professor of political science at the University of Kentucky. He is from Oslo University in Norway.


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