The World : Don’t Allow the Atlantic Alliance to Languish Into Irrelevance

<i> Former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger frequently writes for The Times</i>

By far the most worrisome aspect of U.S. foreign policy is the progressive erosion of the Atlantic Alliance. To be sure, the disintegration of the Soviet empire, the retreat of Soviet armies and the unification of Germany require major changes in the structure and purpose of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. But what is happening is not adaptation; rather, it is decline into an empty shell, with nary a public discussion.

On his three trips to Europe this year, Bill Clinton discussed the alliance as if it were a Cold War relic. He defined its significance almost exclusively in relation to the Partnership for Peace, which, in his view, is not about security but about reconciliation. Having been approved by the NATO council, joined by Russia and a host of other Central and East European countries, the partnership is now a fact of life. But it is not too late to prevent it from submerging the Atlantic Alliance, so patiently and so beneficially constructed over 40 years and still so necessary to deal with a world in turmoil.

The Partnership for Peace is a hybrid of the Wilsonian concept of collective security and of the Henry Wallace ideology of the 1940s--both of which reject the concept of alliance. NATO was designed for security, the partnership for reassurance. The Atlantic Alliance assumed that its threats came from outside the treaty area, while the partnership seeks to pacify threats within its area by affirmations of good intentions. This is what Clinton describes as the partnership’s truly new aspect: “for the first time, all nation-states really do respect the territorial integrity of one another.”

The novel aspect of Clinton’s European policy is that it seeks to build the Atlantic area from East to West, reversing the architecture of the postwar period. But making Russia the hinge of U.S. Atlantic policy places an exorbitant strain on one of the most brittle nations. And it lures the United States into assigning a role to Germany that its leaders have not requested, its circumstances do not favor and that unnecessarily wounds Great Britain and France. During his visit to Berlin, Clinton called on Germany to assume a special responsibility for Eastern Europe and Russia, in particular; he called the U.S. relationship with Germany “singular” because Germany had a more “immediate and tangible concern” with relations with Russia “even than our other friends in Europe.”


Nothing illustrates better the lack of historical perspective plaguing current foreign policy. Even to hint at a solitary and preeminent role for a country whose disasters have been caused by its inability to manage a purely national policy in the center of the Continent is as disquieting to Germany’s neighbors as it is to the architects of German postwar policy.

It is not without significance that, in responding to the President, Chancellor Helmut Kohl specifically invoked the legacy of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer--to seek a major German role not on a purely national basis but as an integral part of the Atlantic Alliance and of the European Union. The impact of a so-called “singular” German-American relationship on the rest of Europe will be to foster separation of Western Europe from the United States, widespread fear in Eastern Europe and the isolation of Germany within Europe.

If present trends continue, NATO policy will become increasingly rudderless. Despite ritualistic assertions to the contrary, the Administration’s Atlantic policy is creating two categories of frontier in Europe: those that are guaranteed are not threatened, and those that are threatened are not guaranteed. The result is a gray area in Eastern and Central Europe that the nations affected find severely disquieting and that can only tempt dangerous tendencies. No reassuring phrases can change the reality that Poland, partitioned four times by Russia in two centuries, thinks of Russia as a threat, not as a partner.

The countries joining the partnership are thus doing so to implement incompatible conceptions. The nations of Central and Eastern Europe are joining because they see it as a steppingstone into NATO. Russia is joining to drain NATO of content, as is evidenced by various Russian proposals amounting to a veto over NATO decisions. Thus, when U.S. leaders imply to Poland that NATO membership is just around the corner and to Russia that it can participate in any security arrangement open to its former satellites (in other words, join NATO eventually), confusion (and worse) is inevitable when the promissory notes fall due.


A coherent Atlantic policy has two requirements: to infuse the core alliance with a new sense of direction, including settling its membership; second, to separate its organizational activities from those of the partnership.

With respect to the first, these questions must be dealt with: What is the core NATO supposed to do? What are the common objectives? Indeed, what exactly is the core of NATO?

Until the question of membership in NATO is settled, the revitalization of the core Atlantic Alliance will languish. The partnership served a useful purpose in opening a discussion of NATO expansion. But further delay invites Germany and Russia to fill the vacuum between them either unilaterally or bilaterally.

So long as NATO and the partnership are merged organizationally, it will prove difficult to define common objectives for the core alliance. Twenty-two nations have already applied for membership in the partnership; scores are eligible. Each nation is supposed to come up with its own program of bilateral cooperation with NATO. No one familiar with how NATO operates can believe that, as now constituted, the alliance bureaucracy can plan individual partnership programs and simultaneously generate a creative adaptation of the alliance itself to the new circumstances.


Russia must be integrated into the international community. But since this is, above all, a political and economic challenge, NATO is not the best institution for that task. Russian membership in the political aspects of the G-7 meetings and participation in multilateral forums dealing with the Balkans and Korea are important. Bilateral consultations between Washington and Moscow will play a crucial role. The European Security Conference comprising all the nations eligible for the partnership was designed for precisely this role. The Atlantic Alliance was not. Why destroy the safety net when forums for reconciliation already exist?*