Are northern Europe's left opposition parties a threat to the NATO alliance? Some NATO officials see real danger signals. Some pro-defense Social Democrats, by contrast, say their parties are in fact guiding NATO thinking in necessary new directions, while integrating left-wing public opinion into the defense consensus.
``There are ideas and platforms being drafted which are putting the alliance under very heavy stress,'' commented one senior West German official, referring both to the West German Social Democrats' yearning for militia-style defense and the British Labour Party's vote for nuclear disarmament yesterday. ``Under these conditions, naturally the security which is granted to this country in the context of the alliance may be shaken.''
Moderate spokesmen for the West German Social Democratic Party (SPD) strongly contest this assessment. In calling for no-first-use of nuclear weapons, the SPD isn't suggesting anything that isn't also backed by respected defense thinkers in the United States, contends Horst Ehmke, member of Parliament and SPD deputy chairman. And as for SPD ideas about ``non-offensive'' defense, ``The main thrust is toward the East. We are telling the East, which has an offensive structure and offensive doctrine, `Now if you want to have stability in Europe you cannot stick with this.' ''
Certainly all the opposition parties in question -- the British, West German, Danish, and Dutch -- swear loyalty to NATO. But controversy swirls around three positions that NATO commanders and diplomats fear could undermine NATO's capacity for defense: nuclear pacifism, ``non-offensive'' defense, and the whole basic commitment to automatic allied response in case of Soviet-bloc attack on any one NATO member-state.
Assessment is complicated by the parties' varying closeness to power, fixedness of conviction, weight within the alliance, and present direction of evolution. In the early 1980s, there was a Social Democratic ebb away from NATO's quarter-century-old strategy of a general common defense system under the impact of the controversy over Euromissile stationing and the Reagan administration's initial anti-Soviet polemics. Currently there is some flow back toward the old consensus, as the superpower dialogue picks up and the Euromissile deployment turns out not to have damaged long-term East-West relations after all. In the future, some Social Democrats worry, if neo-d'etente breaks out between the superpowers, a peace euphoria could wash away altogether their parties' backing for defense.
Significantly, for whatever reason, the pangs of guilt about military power among northern Social Democrats have not similarly afflicted the Spanish and French Socialist parties. Some observers of this phenomenon contrast parties in and out of power, while others contrast the northern Protestant dissenter's conscience to southern Roman Catholic realism and acceptance of authority.
At present, the British Labour Party causes the most concern to allied diplomats. It stands a real chance of winning the general election that must be held within the next year and a half. If Labour did become Britain's ruling party, it would form the government of one of the two most important European member-states in NATO. Its nuclear policy is the most radical of any of the left opposition parties, and it is the most set in its views.
In nuclear policy, the Labour Party (along with the British Liberal Party) renounces all British nuclear weapons, as well as America's European-theater nuclear capability currently based in Britain. It would dispense with these nuclear weapons unilaterally.
In Denmark, the Social Democrats would go beyond the present peacetime ban on nuclear weapons on Denmark's soil to bar them also in time of crisis or war.
The West German SPD falls far short of such unilateralism. It calls on the US to withdraw its intermediate-range nuclear missiles stationed in Germany since 1983 -- but also calls on the Soviet Union to withdraw its intermediate-range nuclear missiles, while leaving ambiguous the linkage between the two requests. What troubles NATO officials more in SPD policy is the party's explicit renunciation of any ``first use'' of nuclear weapons by NATO. This directly contradicts -- as does the British and Danish parties' nuclear unilateralism -- NATO's policy of deterring war by offsetting Soviet conventional superiority in Central Europe with a threatened resort to nuclear weapons, should NATO begin losing a conventional war.
A further SPD action that concerns NATO officials is the party's issuance of joint appeals with the East German Socialist Unity (communist) Party for a zone free of nuclear (and chemical) weapons in Central Europe. This, critics say, plays right into Soviet hands, since Moscow has long wanted to neutralize NATO's nuclear weapons in order to enjoy the political fruits of Soviet conventional superiority.
The Dutch Labor Party, after fierce internal struggles between its unilateralist and gradualist wings, now couches its aversion to nuclear weapons more on the lines of the SPD than of the British Labour Party. As described by Member of Parliament and Dutch Labor Party International Secretary Maarten van Traa in a telephone interview, his party now seeks ``minimum deterrence'' and a shift within NATO to less reliance on potential nuclear escalation and more reliance on conventional deterrence. With this policy, which asks for reduction of the Netherlands' current nuclear tasks down to one weapons system, the Dutch Labor Party wants to maximize Dutch influence on ongoing superpower arms-control negotiations. Clearly the party hopes that, as a result of arms control, the Netherlands will be excused from its present commitment to be the last of the NATO deploying countries to accept new Euromissiles on its soil.
With its fragmented parties, Dutch politics is always volatile, and the Labor Party might well come to play a role in government in some future coalition. The party's impact on defense policies in such an eventuality is unpredictable, however; any pre-coalition negotiations -- especially if conducted by the pragmatic new leader of the party, Wim Kok -- are widely expected to inch the party's defense positions back toward the center simply to qualify Labor as a serious partner in government.
On the issue of ``non-offensive'' defense, the SPD's ideas are considered to be the most far-reaching. The platform adopted unanimously at its convention last August merely advocates such a concept and does not define it. But the more radical proposals -- by party left-wingers like Andreas von B"uelow, a former state secretary in the Defense Ministry and chairman of the party's defense-policy commission, and Erhard Eppler, author of the much more radical draft of a party program for adoption in 1988 -- call for sharp cuts in the West German air force, tank units, and overall armed forces and for the effective transformation of the Bundeswehr into a territorial army.
This, charged West German Defense Ministry State Secretary Lothar R"uehl in a barely civil rebuttal in the Frankfurt newspaper Allgemeine Zeitung, would undermine NATO defense of West Germany. Such cuts would forfeit ``forward defense'' along the East-West German border and let Soviet spearheads penetrate so deeply into West Germany that the SPD's recommended guerrilla-style harassment would stand no chance of repelling them, he said.
So shocking is this approach to West German voters, conservatives believe, that they plan on making a major issue of SPD defense policy in the campaign for next January's election. So unattractive does SPD chancellor candidate Johannes Rau consider this policy that he is downplaying it almost to the point of invisibility. For now, NATO diplomats are fairly relaxed about the SPD, since they expect the party to lose the election on economic issues, and they hope that SPD moderates will walk their party back in a more ``realistic'' direction during the four years before the next election.
Under the strong intellectual influence of the SPD's ferment, the Danish Social Democrats have fully embraced the idea of a ``purely defensive,'' non-provocative or ``popular,'' defense. In a policy paper published in late July, the party calls for the removal of bombs from Denmark's F-16 fighter jets (so the jets cannot be used ``offensively'' to strike airfields in Eastern Europe); the replacement of Danish naval craft by fishing boats (with spare-time surveillance duties) and on-shore missiles; and withdrawal of one of the three Danish brigades from neighboring Schleswig-Holstein in West Germany.
The strong implication of the policy paper is that Denmark might not join a common NATO defense the moment any attack was launched on front-line West Germany, but would begin to fight only when Denmark itself was on the verge of being invaded. Such a last-minute reaction would make reinforcement utterly impossible, the Danes have been told by the British and Dutch armies that NATO has assigned to come to Denmark's defense.
Some ironic anomalies have arisen as the left opposition and semi-opposition parties have written their nuclear abhorrence and general military discomfort into party programs. In justifying its total nuclear rejection, the British Labour Party has called -- however much critics may question its sincerity -- for increased spending for conventional defense. In elaborating non-provocative defense, the West German SPD is proposing passive barricades such as hedgerows and ditches on the North German Plain -- a stop NATO strategists have long been urging on West Germans, who resist increasing physical barriers dividing East and West Germany. And the Danish Social Democrats, in defending the dismantling of the Navy, want to spruce up Denmark's present woeful reception facilities for reinforcements and build an anti-missile defense, the European equivalent of President Reagan's space-based Strategic Defense Initiative that is otherwise such a red flag to the European left.
There is an emerging attempt to coordinate the defense policies of NATO Socialist and Social Democratic parties, and the results tend to favor not the radical left, but the center.