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Europe: Bound to Be on Its Own : With Soviet Threat Seen as Eased, NATO May Be Past Its Time

April 23, 1986|CHRISTOPHER LAYNE | Christopher Layne is an attorney and foreign - policy analyst in Los Angeles

In the wake of U.S. reprisals against Libya, what, if anything, is left of the Western Alliance? France refused to let U.S. bombers fly over its territory, the most direct course, en route to the Libyan targets, and West Germany, Italy and others have opposed Washington's use of force. But if the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is an alliance, why don't the "allies" support America in times of crisis?

It is understandable that Washington feels let down by Europe, but its disappointment also is the product of misconceptions of what NATO is--or should be--about. Although U.S. policy-makers assume otherwise, American and European interests are not identical. Indeed, Western Europe and the United States are divided by major and deepening divergences of their principal strategic, political and economic interests. Libya is merely one example of a widening transatlantic rift.

Europe's hostility to our Libyan policy is rooted in considerations of history and interests. The United States believes that NATO's strategic responsibilities should encompass the protection of Western interests in the Third World. Europeans believe that the alliance exists solely to defend Europe itself. As a result, most Western European nations will not permit Washington to use NATO bases on their soil to project U.S. power into the Third World. This did not begin with Libya; during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, many Western European nations refused to allow American aircraft transporting military supplies to Israel to fly over their territory or to refuel at NATO airfields.

America's present predicament is not without irony. In NATO's early years it was the Europeans, needing U.S. help to prop up their shaky colonial empires, who sought to extend the alliance's scope beyond Europe and who argued that their imperial role in the Third World served common Western interests. Washington's refusal to back Britain and France during the 1956 Suez crisis is still bitterly remembered in Europe, and, subconsciously at least, explains in part the reluctance to support America's Third World policy, including its anti-terrorism strategy.

Europeans resent their displacement from world political leadership by the United States, and fear that an arriviste American may be incapable of discharging U.S. global responsibilities wisely. They worry that an assertive U.S.-Third World policy could provoke a superpower confrontation that might chill detente in Europe or, at worst, embroil it in a war of non-European origins.

Linked to the Middle East by historical and colonial ties, Western Europe believes that its understanding of the forces driving terrorism is more sophisticated than Washington's. The Europeans see terrorism as a consequence of the unresolved Palestinian and Arab-Israeli problems, and believe that Western military reprisals will result only in an escalating cycle of violence.

Because of geography, Western Europe is critically dependent on Middle Eastern oil, and has important economic ties to the region. Thus Europe prefers to protect its political, economic and security interests by cutting its own deals with Libya, the Palestine Liberation Organization and other Middle Eastern forces.

Despite Washington's public statements downplaying the rift with Europe, and Western Europe's belated adoption of mild diplomatic sanctions against Libya, the extent of European-U.S. discord cannot be disguised. The crisis concerning Libya is symptomatic of the underlying problems threatening NATO's survival. Periodic intramural disputes are nothing new to the alliance, but in its early days NATO always came together in a crisis. Over the past 15 years, however, nearly every major foreign-policy issue--arms control and the Strategic Defense Initiative, East-West trade and technology transfers, Afghanistan, Iran, the Middle East, Poland, Central America and terrorism--has driven America and Western Europe further apart.

This should not be surprising. Because geopolitical circumstances change, alliances never last forever. They form in response to a mutually perceived threat to security; when the threat dissipates, alliances disintegrate.

This is what is happening with NATO, which was formed in the immediate postwar years because a politically and economically prostrate Western Europe believed that its security was imminently threatened by the Soviet Union. Today, however, Western Europe is stable and prosperous, and no longer perceives Moscow as an overriding threat. Because Western Europe feels secure, it is now able to pursue its own interests even when these clash with America's.

It is unreasonable for America to object to this policy of independence, but if that is the course that Europe chooses, it must develop strategic power commensurate with the scope of its political and economic interests. Europe's failure to do so would unmask the truth about NATO: It is not an alliance, but a unilateral U.S. guarantee of Europe's security. Europe hardly can expect to enjoy the perquisites of independence without also assuming its burdens.

As it becomes clear that Western Europe has no reciprocal obligations to the United States, America's willingness to maintain its commitment to defend the Europeans is bound to diminish--especially as Americans become more fully aware of the nuclear dangers and economic costs inherent in the U.S. guarantee to NATO.

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