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NATO's Disappearing Mission

Doug Bandow


Following the de facto collapse of the Warsaw Pact, NATO alliance officials are desperately dreaming up new tasks for the hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops stationed in Europe. But why must America's defensive role remain immutable?

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was established forty years ago with one basic duty: to safeguard war-torn Western Europe. Only an alliance managed and manned by the U.S. was believed capable of preventing the Red Army from "liberating" the entire continent.

Today a Soviet attack is inconceivable. Moscow is reducing defense spending and withdrawing forces from Eastern Europe, while the Warsaw Pact is effectively dead. A regime willing to accept the end of communism in its one-time satellites is unlikely to launch a war of conquest against the West.

As a result, Washington has a unique opportunity to achieve what once would have seemed to be its primary goal: the elimination of Soviet troops from Eastern Europe. Czechoslovakia and Hungary have already arranged for the withdrawal of the Red Army and in a year or two Moscow may find the rest of its erstwhile allies demanding the unilateral pull-out of its forces; the U.S.S.R. would be better off negotiating a mutual disengagement with the U.S. Even if Gorbachev is not willing to go so far so quickly, he might agree to a superpower demilitarization of Central Europe, or extraordinarily deep conventional cuts that would make a full withdrawal inevitable.

Yet earlier this year President Bush told the nation that " in a new Europe, the American role may change in form but not in fundamentals," apparently even if Europe changes fundamentally. True, he allowed, there might come a "utopian day" when NATO is not needed, but it could be a century away. Encouraged by the President's dedication to the status quo, NATO enthusiasts, instead of celebrating the elimination of the military threat that warranted the creation of the alliance, are now -- as if to proved the truth of public choice economics -- concocting new duties for America's troops in Europe.

Why must America's role remain immutable? The argument that glasnost and perestroika are merely a clever Leninist ploy is now confined to the fringe, such as John Birch Society head G. Allen Bubolz, who says that "nothing's really changed." Nevertheless, some analysts worry about the potential military threat from a post-Gorbachev regime. But once Soviet troops are out of Eastern Europe, they won't be invited back. And what Soviet leader -- whether Gorbachev, Ligachev, or even Brezhnev -- would risk war merely to move soldiers forward?

What if a new threat nevertheless develops? A European-based alliance centered around Western European Union would be sufficient to deter war. A Western Europe that greatly outperforms the U.S.S.R. economically and possesses a larger population can defend itself. Indeed, Europe could easily devote far more resources to its defense. Until now, West Germany, the frontline state, has made less than half the defense effort than the U.S.; American citizens spend more on Europe's defense alone than do Europeans. With the collapse of the Soviet Union's nominal allies in Eastern Europe, no one can seriously contend that Europe still requires an American defense subsidy.

The British magazine Economist suggests NATO will be needed in the future to respond to other security threats, such as in the oil-rich Persian Gulf. But the U.S. has often met resistance from its NATO allies to its policies in Europe, let alone those elsewhere in the world. Without a common Soviet threat, allied cooperation will become increasingly difficult.

Other commentators talk vaguely about promoting European stability. But while superpower involvement may discourage change, that is not necessarily a benefit -- remember Czechoslovakia in 1968? Disengagement would help insulate the East from pernicious Soviet meddling, presumably the reason that leaders in Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Hungary have all suggested that the Soviet soldiers soon "go home."

But can't NATO help "manage" the changes in Eastern Europe? As the bloody Romanian revolution demonstrates, there is little that the outside world can do to "manage" anything in the region. Anyway, there are plenty of forums outside the alliance in which to discuss the rebuilding of an independent Central Europe. Riots between Hungarians and Romanians in Transylvania may be unfortunate, but they do not justify America's participation in a European military alliance. Indeed, the presence of the superpowers' troops merely risks drawing the U.S. and U.S.S.R. into otherwise local disputes.

America's continued involvement in NATO has also been advanced as a means of ensuring that Europe achieves economic unity in 1992. But its neither clear that such a development is in America's interest nor that there is anything hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers in Europe can do to encourage it to occur.

What about other tasks? David Abshire suggests helping promote ecology; Robert Hormats speaks of encouraging student exchanges and fighting drug abuse. Perhaps American soldiers could also help eliminate illiteracy by turning their tanks into book mobiles. Surely a better argument is required for America to maintain hundreds of thousands of troops in Europe.

Finally, there is the German question. In the view of some observers, NATO can control the unification process or forestall Germany's economic "domination" of the continent. James Chace of Columbia has even proposed an allied occupation force after Germany reunites. But a German attack on its neighbors, some of which possess nuclear weapons, seems about as unlikely as a Napoleonic revival in France, and Germany's economic success relative to its neighbors is of no concern to Washington.

Whatever the final outcome of the changes sweeping the one-time "Soviet bloc," America will remain deeply involved -- culturally, economically, and politically -- in European affairs. But the only serious argument for a trans-Atlantic military alliance backed by U.S. troops is to continue to guarantee the security of Western Europe from the U.S.S.R. Since the de facto collapse of the Warsaw Pact has eliminated the need for that protection, alliance officials, instead of desperately dreaming up new tasks for NATO, should begin preparing to retire the American-dominated pact.


Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special Assistant to President Reagan for Policy Development. He is the author of Beyond Good Intentions: A Biblical View of Politics and The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington, newly released by Transaction Publishers.
7-16-96 tew
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