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NATO: A Damned Near-Run Thing

8 minute read

The allies vote to strengthen Europe’s strike force with new missiles

A few miles south of the Brussels headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization lies the field of Waterloo. The famous battle that took place there in 1815 was, as the victorious Duke of Wellington said afterward, “a damned nice thing—the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life.” So indeed was last week’s meeting of the North Atlantic Alliance, at which members made one of the most crucial decisions in the organization’s 31-year history: to modernize its Western European nuclear strike force with a new generation of intermediate-range missiles aimed directly at the Soviet Union. With that, the major NATO powers, led by the U.S., claimed a victory, but they had to admit it had been too close for comfort. Three of the smaller members—The Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark—expressed a variety of objections to the new weapons. Nonetheless, U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance spoke bravely of “consensus,” and declared that NATO had given Washington a “solid foundation” for proceeding with the development of the medium-range missiles.

The basic decision was to develop and deploy 572 U.S.-made Pershing II and cruise missiles in at least three and possibly five countries of Western Europe. The scheme is designed as a counterforce to the Soviet Union’s 50 Back-fire bombers and as many as 150 medium-range SS-20 missiles facing Western Europe. The NATO missiles, to be built over the next three years at a cost of $5 billion to the U.S., will be based in Western Europe but manned by American servicemen, thereby tying the U.S. inextricably to Western Europe’s defense, but also raising the risks to Europe of a Soviet counterblow. In a second, more conciliatory action, the NATO powers also voted to ask the Soviet Union to enter into arms negotiations to reduce the numbers of mediumrange missiles on both sides.

The Soviet Union was swift to react angrily against NATO’s missile decision. Calling it the product of “crude pressure” by the U.S. against its allies, TASS declared that the plan was “dangerous to the cause of peace and to international detente.” NATO planners paid little attention, convinced as they are that the present strategic balance in Europe favors the Warsaw Pact to a greater extent than ever before. They believe the new Western missiles will significantly strengthen the alliance and will, at the least, give it an important new bargaining chip in any fu ture arms negotiations with the Soviets.

Specifically, the plan reinforces NATO’s defenses with 108 new Pershing II missiles and 464 ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) starting in 1983. Both are extremely accurate. The Pershing II, to be placed in West Germany alone, is a mobile missile with a range of about 1,000 miles (vs. 450 miles for the Pershing 1 A, which the new weapons will replace). The GLCM (or “glickum,” in Pentagon jargon), to be deployed in Britain, West Germany and Italy, and later, perhaps, in Belgium and The Netherlands, is a dry-land version of the U.S. Navy’s Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missile. It is designed to be a subsonic weapon with a range of about 1,500 miles and a lot of maneuverability; it will be able to fly at treetop level and follow a serpentine course, and can be recalled at any time before it reaches its target.

In a broader sense, the new missiles are designed to fill a political as well as a strategic gap in the Western deterrent by warning Moscow that it could not escape unscathed from nuclear threats aimed at dominating Western Europe. In 1977, both Britain and West Germany called Washington’s attention to the fact that the alliance, if it should suddenly become the target of a Soviet attack in Europe, could easily find itself in a nuclear dilemma: its response might be either too modest (perhaps with the use of battlefield nuclear artillery) or too devastating (an intercontinental ballistic missile strike at the Soviet Union from the U.S.). Furthermore, the Europeans are also fearful that in such an emergency, the U.S. might not respond at all. What was needed, they felt, was a nuclear capability that would permit NATO to react directly to a Soviet strike without having to resort to what strategists flippantly call the ultimate “big bang.”

Last fall the Soviet Union launched a ferocious propaganda campaign against the NATO missile proposals. Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev declared that the Soviet Union would not “watch indifferently the efforts of the NATO militarists,” but would be ready to “take the necessary extra steps to strengthen our security.” In a loudly proclaimed peace ges-ture—a carrot to accompany the stick —the Soviets last month announced the withdrawal of some obsolescent tank divisions from East Germany.

The Soviet campaign only tended to strengthen the resolve of the British, West German and Italian governments. But it also contributed to the uncertainty of some of the smaller members of NATO, notably The Netherlands and Belgium. The opposition socialist parties in The Netherlands managed to collect enough support to put the Dutch Parliament on record as opposing the missile plan. Caught in a domestic political dilemma, Premier Andreas van Agt dashed off to Washington, Rome, London and Bonn in search of a compromise.

Similarly, in Belgium, the NATO proposal was opposed by powerful members of the Socialist Party, a component of the fragile government coalition. In a parliamentary meeting, Foreign Minister Henri Simonet arrogantly declared that some of his party colleagues “would be better employed drawing comic strips than dealing with foreign affairs.” In Denmark and Norway, some leftists also had strong reservations about the missile plan. For a while it looked as if NATO might degenerate into what the West Germans had always feared it could become if left alone to shoulder the nuclear responsibility: a two-tier organization of small powers and a “directorate” of larger ones.

At last week’s meeting, Vance and U.S. Defense Secretary Harold Brown argued that NATO must act immediately on the missile decision. They also pointed out that the Iran crisis had reawakened the U.S. to the dangers to its own security, and they emphasized that for the solidarity of the alliance, the European members should be visibly responsive to the Iran problem. NATO members did indeed give Vance a statement of support on Iran, though it was not the strong endorsement of U.S. policy he had sought.

During the six-hour session, the West Germans were openly impatient with the Dutch and the Belgians on the missile question. Said Bonn’s Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher: “We Germans realize you have political difficulties. But two out of three of the new rockets will be based on our territory.” He called on the organization to make “a clear-cut decision for the sake of the alliance.”

In the end, the NATO members avoided a serious open split, but obvious differences remained. The final communique declared that NATO would press forward with the deployment of the missiles in “selected countries.” NATO Secretary-General Joseph Luns confirmed that the countries were Britain, West Germany and Italy; he added that “Belgium and The Netherlands may accept the missiles later.” Both recalcitrant countries said that they might well accept the missiles on their territory if there were no progress in disarmament negotiations with the Soviet Union; Belgium said it would reconsider in six months, The Netherlands in two years.

The communique called on the Soviet Union to enter into negotiations on the reduction of medium-range weapons as soon as possible. It also made a limited unilateral offer: to withdraw “as soon as feasible” 1,000 of the 7,000 U.S. war heads presently positioned in Europe, most of them in obsolete weapons such as land mines and bombs. The action was intended as a response to the ongoing withdrawal of outmoded Soviet tanks from East Germany, or, as a NATO diplomat acknowledged less than respectfully, “our garbage for their garbage.” The Soviets have been giving conflicting signals as to whether they would be prepared to hold arms talks at the present time. It is clear, however, that in the negotiations that will surely be held eventually, last week’s vote will reinforce NATO’S arguments as well as its arsenal.

It also seems certain that those arms talks will be markedly different from the SALT I and II negotiations of the past. In those decade-long proceedings, Europe was always excluded, and Europeans felt that their own security was being settled over their heads and perhaps even bargained away. This time the U.S. will still do the bargaining, but will share the decision making with its European allies for the first time. For the U.S. as well as for Western Europe, this change will intro duce a whole new era of strategic and political cooperation.

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