During NATO’s recent 60th anniversary ceremony in Strasbourg, the alliance welcomed two new members, Albania and Croatia, bringing its total membership to 28. This expansion is a good thing, for history has tormented these two countries. Being welcomed within the great international family of the West will reassure them, stabilize them and contribute to their political, cultural and economic development.
But the good news at the summit was limited, because it addressed only a routine agenda and did not tackle any core problems.
The controversy in France over the country’s return to NATO’s unified military command makes this abundantly clear. Was France losing its autonomy, perhaps even its sovereignty? Was it capitulating to US hegemony? These are real questions, yet were spoken of at the summit more in terms of symbols than reality.
But what is the reality here? NATO is a military alliance composed of 28 countries. One of them, the US, has a military budget that is more than three times that of all the other members combined. Hence, the US runs most NATO civilian and military commands with the consent of the others. Of course, there is a collective consultation and deliberative process that enables any member to be heard. But in reality a member’s power is what affects common decisions.
This structure harks back to the conditions of NATO’s birth, when it was forged to thwart the Soviet threat to Western civilization. At the time, no one ever doubted that the power of the US — already endowed with nuclear weapons — was the only counterpart. For this reason, the US came to preside over the alliance.
During the 41 years of the Cold War, 14 of NATO’s 16 members strictly obeyed and complied with US decisions and policies. French President Charles de Gaulle was the only one to question whether a US president would actually be ready to launch a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union to protect one or several alliance members if vital US interests were not directly at stake.
Based on that doubt, France — a nuclear power since 1960 — withdrew in 1966 from NATO’s permanent centralized military command to assert its own deterrent capability. This decision was mainly grounded on the US doctrine, adopted in 1962, of “flexible response,” which said to the Soviets: “As long as you do not use nuclear weapons, we will not use them, either.”
This very doctrine left Europe exposed.
Indeed, while it is a much disputed question, de Gaulle was probably right about the US’ lack of commitment to the nuclear defense of Europe. Both Henry Kissinger and Robert McNamara left office admitting that de Gaulle had been correct. Nevertheless, de Gaulle’s insights left a legacy that still cause some mistrust and dissent within NATO. France was right on this strategic point, but it was never able to explain its position to its allies.
This inability to discuss this strategic doctrine continues to hamper NATO. At the Strasbourg summit, confidence in the future could have been strengthened if a couple of troubling issues had been discussed. Instead, once again, there was an extended focus on the past.
The key questions are whether NATO’s doctrine of common defense is directed at one country in particular and whether nuclear force remains the alliance’s major defensive tool.
In today’s global situation, no predictable conflict would require the use of a nuclear weapon. At the moment, there is no global threat and NATO only intervenes in regional conflicts, so why not have NATO admit this?