Europe’s Geopolitical Journey: Nostalgia for NATO

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Several years ago, I wrote a series of articles on a journey in Europe. It was intended both to be personal and to go beyond recent events or the abstract considerations of geopolitics. This week I begin another journey that will take me from Portugal to Singapore, and I thought that I would try my hand again at reflecting on the significance of my travels. As I prepare for my journey, I am drawn to a central question regarding the U.S.-European relationship, or what remains of it. Having been in Europe at a time when that relationship meant everything to both sides, and to the world, this trip forces me to think about NATO. I have been asked to make several speeches about U.S.-European relations during my upcoming trip. It is hard to know where to start. The past was built around NATO, so thinking about NATO’s past might help me put things in perspective.

Europe's Geopolitical Journey: Nostalgia for NATO


On a personal level, my relationship with Europe always passes through the prism of NATO. Born in Hungary, I recall my parents sitting in the kitchen in 1956, when the Soviets came in to crush the revolution. On the same night as my sister’s wedding in New York, we listened on the radio to a report on Soviet tanks attacking a street just a block from where we lived in Budapest. I was 7 at the time. The talk turned to the Americans and NATO and what they would do. NATO was the redeemer who disappoints not because he cannot act but because he will not. My family’s underlying faith in the power of American alliances was forged in World War II and couldn’t be shaken. NATO was the sword of Gideon, albeit lacking in focus and clarity at times.

I had a more personal relationship with NATO. In the 1970s, I played an embarrassingly unimportant role in developing early computerized war games. The games were meant to evaluate strategies on NATO’s central front: Germany. At that time, the line dividing Germany was the fault line of the planet. If the world were to end in a nuclear holocaust, it would end there. The place that people thought it would all start was called the Fulda Gap, a not-too-hilly area in the south, where a rapid attack could take Frankfurt and also strike at the heart of U.S. forces. The Germans speak of a watch on the Rhine. For my generation, or at least those millions who served in the armies of NATO, it was Fulda.

In the course of designing war games, I spent some time at SHAPE Technical Center in The Hague. SHAPE stands for Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe. The name itself is a reminder of the origins of NATO, deep in World War II and the alliance that defeated the Germans. It was commanded by SACEUR — Supreme Allied Commander Europe — who was always an American. Over time, the name became increasingly anachronistic, as SACEUR stopped resembling U.S. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and started resembling the chair of a fractious church board, where people showed up for the snacks more than to make decisions.

To me, in the 1970s, SHAPE and SACEUR were acronyms that recalled D-Day and were built around the word “supreme.” I was young and in awe, with a sense of history and pride in participating in it. Why I should be proud to participate in what might lead to total catastrophe for humanity seems odd in retrospect, but there is little in any of our lives that does not seem odd in retrospect. However, I was proud that I got to go into a building designated as SHAPE’s technical center. I felt at the center of history. History, of course, is deceptive.

Games and Reality

It was never clear to me what those above us (whom we called “EBR,” echelons beyond reality) did with the games that were built and played, or with the results, but I believe I learned a great deal about the war that was going to be fought. What cut short my career as a war gamer was my growing realization of the triviality of what we were doing and that the intelligence that we were building the games from was inherently deficient. Moreover, the commanders weren’t all that interested in what we were doing. And there was the fact that I was genuinely enjoying and actually looking forward to a war that would test our theories. When the pieces on a map represent human beings and their loss means nothing to you, it is time to leave.

The war gaming was not the problem; properly done, as I hope it is by now, it can aid in victory and save lives. But then, knowing the men (women came later) who would stand and fight at Fulda if the time came, I felt I had been given a frivolous job. There was one thing I got from that job, however: I came into contact with troops from all the armies that might be called to fight. I had a profound sense that they were not just my colleagues but also my comrades. Some didn’t like Americans, and others didn’t like me, but this is no different than any organization. We were peering into the future, with our fates bound together.

The U.S. and Soviet Views of NATO

The United States believed that the Soviet conquest of Western Europe would integrate Soviet resources and European technology. This same fear led the Americans and Europeans to fight Germany in two wars from two very different perspectives. For my European colleagues, it meant the devastation of their countries, even if NATO won the war. The Dutch, for example, had lived under occupation and even preferred devastation over capitulation. For me, it was an abstract exercise, both in the strange mathematics of the war games and in the more distant consequences of defeat for my country. At the same time, there was a shared sense of urgency that formed the foundation of our relationship: War might come at any moment, and we must consider every possible move by the Soviets, and we must propose solutions.

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The Americans were always haunted by Pearl Harbor. This is why 9/11 was such a blow. The historical recollection of the attack out of nowhere was always close. Doctrine said that we would have 30 days’ warning of a Soviet attack. I had no idea where this doctrine came from, and I suspected that it came from the fact that we needed 30 days’ warning to get ready. The Europeans did not fear the unexpected attack; rather, they dreaded the expected attack for which preparations had not been made. World War II haunted them differently. They were riveted on the fact that they knew what was coming and failed to prepare. The Americans and Europeans were united by paranoia, but their paranoia differed. For the Americans, staying out of alliances and not acting soon enough was what caused the war. The United States was committed to never repeating that mistake. NATO was one of many alliances. The Americans love alliances.

It is interesting to recognize

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