NATO Needs a More Modest Proposal

<i> William Pfaff is a Los Angeles Times syndicated columnist based in Paris. </i>

The trouble between the United States and its European allies over the Libyan affair is considerably more serious than a difference of opinion over whether bombing Col. Moammar Kadafi is the way to end terrorism.

Europe’s polls are interesting. Two-thirds to three-quarters of the public in Great Britain and West Germany condemn America’s punitive expedition against Libya. Two-thirds of the French favor it. The French government, on the other hand, objected to the raid, and the British and German governments supported it.

This is not, perhaps, the paradox that it seems. The French public is expressing exactly the activist approach to foreign affairs that inspired its government to take an independent and nationalist line. If the French government did not keep its policies conspicuously independent of the American, on this as on most issues, the public would also be upset.

The West Germans and British, on the other hand, are deeply, even cripplingly, conscious of a dependence on the United States--a dependence provoking resentment. In London last weekend the best arguments that anyone could produce in favor of allowing the United States to use British bases for the raid were that U.S. help in the Falklands war had to be repaid (Margaret Thatcher’s position) and that appeasement of the United States is essential to keep the Atlantic Alliance together.


This was an argument made in the right-wing Sunday Telegraph, whose editor went on to say: better a muddled raid on Kadafi, and all the dangers that flow from this in the short term, than the appalling long-term dangers that would flow from a U.S. withdrawal from Europe. This does not amount to a very ringing endorsement.

It amounts, in fact, to a deeply patronizing, if complaisant, approach to the United States, serving to justify the angry complaint made by the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Gen. Vernon Walters, after his trip to Europe to try to muster support for the U.S. attack on Libya. He said thatEuropeans have a complex that Americans are ignorant, naive and stupid. (Another British commentator, in another conservative paper, the Spectator, said that when Americans get hurt they are tremendous crybabies, canceling their holidays and generally behaving in a fashion that displays what in the RAF used to be called “lack of moral fiber.”)

Walters also said that European critics of the United States have never forgiven us for the Marshall Plan. That is not true. Europeans fear that it is the Americans who have never forgiven Europeans for the Marshall Plan. They fear that Americans have forgotten what lay behind the Marshall Plan, and NATO, and the stationing of U.S. troops in Europe--concern for the strategic security of the United States as much as for that of Western Europe.

The United States is thought by Europeans, and not only by Europeans, to be in a mood today to put its strategic priority on what happens in Libya, with its date palms and 3 million inhabitants, or in Nicaragua, rather than on what happens in Western Europe, an industrial and economic community more populous, richer, with a larger military potential than either the United States or the Soviet Union.


The Libyan affair has dramatized what everyone has known for some time--that things are going badly between the European allies and the United States. Whether West Europeans think Americans stupid, incompetent or crybabies, or whether Americans think Europeans yellow-bellied appeasers--to take the more colorful things being said--is of little consequence in itself. The problem is what lies behind the epithets.

The American perception of national interest and national security increasingly diverges from that of most West Europeans. The NATO alliance is not what it was meant to become when it was conceived in 1948. Its members have certain enduring interests in common, and have divergent interests as well--or divergent perceptions of interests. The time has come to face this.

NATO was formed as an association of continuous and effective self-help and mutual aid on matters of international security. That was too grand an aim. It is responsible for the bitterness that Americans feel when they don’t get the unqualified support that they expect from their allies in affairs such as the Libyan raid, and equally for the resentment that Europeans feel when the United States charges off on its own, with little concern for what Europeans think or for whether it may be the Europeans who eventually have to take the consequences for U.S. actions.

It is time to rethink the transatlantic relationship. It is time to think of replacing the NATO treaty with something more modest and more realistic that will rest on the strategic interests that continue to be held in common on the two sides of the Atlantic but that will renounce the impossible ambition of strategic cooperation on many fronts. One could put it this way: The time has come for an Atlantic Coalition to take the place of the Atlantic Alliance.