Europe’s Geopolitical Journey: Nostalgia for NATO

now what the Soviets were afraid of. When World War II came to them, they had no allies. Their one ally, Germany, was the one that betrayed them. The Soviets were both taken by surprise and fought alone until the Americans and British chose to help them. The Soviets had played complex diplomacy with traditional alliances, and when it failed the Soviet Union committed itself to never again depending on others. It had the Warsaw Pact because the West had NATO, but it did not depend on its allies. The Americans threw themselves into alliances as if an alliance solved all problems. The Soviets, however, acted as if allies were the most dangerous things of all.

In the end, when we look back on it, war was much less likely than we felt. The West was not going to invade the East. On the defensive, the Soviets would have annihilated our much smaller force. And, truth be told, no one had the slightest interest in conquering Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union.

As for the Soviets, on paper they were an overwhelming force, but paper is a bad place to think about war. The Soviets did not want a nuclear exchange, and in their view the United States was itching to have one. They knew if they moved westward there would be an exchange. Plus, it turned out, the Soviets would have a great deal of trouble keeping their tanks fueled as they moved to the west. They had a plan for laying plastic pipes from their fuel depots and rolling them out as the tanks advanced. The problem was that the pipes never worked very well, and their fuel depots were slated for annihilation by airstrikes, possibly the day before the war began officially.

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All of this is past and I recollect it with a combination of pride — not for what I did, which was little, but for simply being there — and chagrin about how little we understood the enemy. Both sides were ready for war. Both sides were expecting actions that the other side had no intentions of undertaking. But all of the plans that we created were, in the end, irrelevant. The only way to win the game — as the movie War Games said — was not to play it. Not surprisingly, the leaders — Eisenhower and Khrushchev, Nixon and Brezhnev, Reagan and Gorbachev — knew it better than the experts. It has always struck me as the world’s great fortune that the two great superpowers were the United States and the Soviet Union, who managed the Cold War with meticulous care in retrospect. Imagine the European diplomats of 1914 or 1938 armed with nuclear weapons. It is easy to believe they would not have been as cautious.

NATO’s Legacy and Disarray

What NATO provided that was priceless, and the unexpected byproduct of all of this, was a comradeship and unity of purpose on both sides of the North Atlantic. Even the French, who withdrew from NATO’s military command under Charles de Gaulle, remained unofficially part of it. There was little question but that if “the balloon went up” — the enemy took action — the French would be there, arguing over who would command whom but fighting as hard as the Underground did before D-Day. But through NATO, I got to know Germans at a time when knowing Germans was not easy for me because of what my family went through during the war. I was forced to distinguish Germany from Franz who could play the ukulele.

I had a son in 1976. When I went to Europe, I met an Italian and we became friends. We would talk about what we would tell our families to do if the balloon went up. The conversation — strange and perhaps pathological as it was — bound us together. It was not war, it was not peace, but it was a place in the mind where the preparation for war and the anxiety that it generated created strange forms, such as plans for the movement of children in order to avoid a nuclear holocaust.

NATO, far more than a model United Nations or a Fulbright, allowed ordinary Americans and Europeans to know each other and understand that with linked fates, they were comrades in arms. After World War II, that was a profound lesson. Millions of draftees experienced that and took the lesson home.

The end of the Cold War is no great loss, although my youth went with it. Losing the unity of purpose that the Cold War gave Western Europe and the United States is of enormous consequence. For a while, after 1991, the two sides went on as if the alliance could exist even without an enemy. However, NATO started to fragment when it lost its enemy. The passion for a mission gave NATO meaning, and the passion was drained. The alliance continued to fragment when the United States decided to invade Iraq for the second time. The vast majority of countries in NATO supported the invasion — a forgotten fact — but France and Germany did not. This damaged the United States’ relations with Europe, particularly with the French, who have a way of getting under the skins of Americans while appearing oblivious to it. But the greater damage was within Europe — the division between those who wanted to maintain close relations with the United States, even if they thought the Iraq War was a bad idea, and those who wanted Europe to have its own voice, distinct from the Americans’.

The 2008 global financial contagion did not divide the Americans and Europeans nearly as much as it divided Europe. The relationship between European countries — less among leaders than among publics — has become poisonous. Something terrible has happened to Europe, and each country is holding someone else responsible. As many countries are blaming Germany as Germany is blaming for the crisis.

There can be no trans-Atlantic alliance when one side is in profound disagreement with itself over many things and the other side has no desire to be drawn into the dispute. Nor can there be a military alliance where there is no understanding of the mission, the enemy or obligations. NATO was successful during the Cold War because the enemy was clear, there was consensus over what to do in each particular circumstance and participation was a given. An alliance that does not know its mission, has no meaningful plans for what problems it faces and stages come-as-you-are parties in Libya or Mali, where invitations are sent out and no one RSVPs, cannot be considered an alliance. The committees meet and staffs of defense ministers prepare for conferences — all of the niceties of an alliance remain. SACEUR is still an American, the Science and Technology Committee produces papers, but in the end, the commonality of purpose is gone.

My European colleagues and I were young, serious and dedicated. These are all dangerous things because we lacked historical perspective (but then, so did many of our elders). What we had together, however, was invaluable: a moment in history,