Why Europe Fears Us

Professor of sociology at the Sorbonne, RAYMOND ARON,who was born in Paris in 1905,is widely known as one of Europe’s ranking commentators on political and economic affairs. This paper and the one to follow have been drawn from Mr. Aron’s new book, THE GREAT DERATE: THEORIES OF NUCLEAR STRATEGY, which has been translated from the French by Ernst Pawel and will be published by Doubleday early in January.

WAR offices and general staff headquarters in preatomic days collected filing cabinets full of operational plans, all designed to meet any of the various contingencies that the fertile brains of diplomats or soldiers were capable of dreaming up. But these plans, classified top secret and carefully protected at least from the prying curiosity of common mortals if not always of enemy spies, were not subject to public discussion and could not possibly cause friction among allies — especially since allies almost never went so far as to agree on a joint course of action in advance of the outbreak of hostilities.

But, as Molière’s “physician in spite of himself” put it, “we’ve changed all that.” Any journalist, politician, or diplomat now feels qualified to hold forth on the respective merits of counterforce versus countercity strategy or on the deployment of tactical atomic weapons. American refusal to install medium-range missiles on European soil becomes a topic for polemics. Measures, even mere suggestions, of a purely military nature are interpreted as symptoms of political intentions. Ever since 1961, when the Kennedy Administration took over in Washington, atomic and thermonuclear arms have become the central issue in controversies among the Western allies on the one hand and between China and the Soviet Union on the other.

The explosive power of nuclear weapons and the speed of delivery are such that henceforth no major power can afford to shirk the obligation of a permanent alert. It is doubtful whether the mobilization of human and industrial resources is still feasible in the wake of nuclear exchanges; at least in the event of all-out war there will be no discernible difference between the forces available in peacetime and those that can be mobilized in time of war. By way of another paradox, mobilization in the traditional manner will now take place only for secondary conflicts of the Korean type or to demonstrate resolve as a means of deterrence, as, for instance, in the Berlin crisis of 1961.

Permanent mobilization is part of the permanent alert: and the measures taken, deployment of divisions and of tactical atomic weapons, predetermine the course of events. Since the prime objective of these measures is deterrence — that is, the prevention of hostilities —strategy and diplomacy are now intertwined as never before. Words alone are wasted unless they convey a threat backed up by military measures.

This situation, inevitable though it may be, entails obvious risks. In the old days staff headquarters did not regard certain contingencies as likely just because they had provided for them in their advance planning. Today one is sometimes inclined to feel that the West fears certain dangers not because they are real, but because planners have included them in order not to omit any theoretically conceivable Soviet move. It is almost as if the less cause there is to fear Soviet aggression, the more the West worries about it. The arguments have grown more intense because people are increasingly sophisticated and can now perceive situations that ten years ago, when nations were less well armed and less well informed, would have escaped their attention. What scares them, in a way, is their own shadow; and the American analysts are scaring Europeans by taking precautions against contingencies that to the latter seem improbable, to say the least.

Translation copyright © 1964, by Doubleday & Company, Inc.

Since 1958 and 1959, atomic weapons have transformed relations among allies as much as among enemies and have shaken both power blocs in such a way as to create a more favorable climate for an incipient détente between enemies. The damage to European security as a result of the increasing vulnerability of the United States has never been evident except in books and newspapers; it has been felt far more acutely by specialists, statesmen, and experts than by the man in the street.

Here again the paradox is apparent rather than real. In theory the experts are right: the threat of thermonuclear arms becomes more and more implausible as the possibilities of devastation to which anyone resorting to it would expose himself increase. But the devastation would be no less terrible for the nation provoking this outburst of insanity, so that extreme provocation is no more probable than the thermonuclear response. Thus the two major powers have, by gradually feeling their way, come to discover and respect certain simple rules. Neither has pushed the use of thermonuclear arms to extremes in diplomatic offensives, and with the exception of Cuba, neither has taken the military initiative in a zone of influence staked out by the other, at least where a line of demarcation had clearly been traced.

These rules—to refrain from using regular armies to modify the status quo and from using the thermonuclear threat to obtain concessions — conform to the extreme prudence dictated by the monstrous destructiveness of the weapons available, but they are also in line with traditional Bolshevik concepts. Obviously the Bolsheviks are not loathe to spread socialism at the point of the bayonet. But except for the North Korean aggression (which at the very least they condoned), the Soviets, under Stalin as well as under Khrushchev, never contemplated waging a major war for the sole purpose of advancing the cause of socialism. The nature of thermonuclear arms is such that even the men in the Kremlin no longer regard a third world war as the final and inevitable stage of the present world crisis marking the transition from capitalism to socialism.

Constant and careful thought will from now on have to be devoted to the best ways of meeting any emergency, including raids, local aggression against one member of an alliance, aggressive probes, major aggression with conventional arms only, and massive aggression. At the same time, however, it would be quite unreasonable to ascribe to the enemy wholly improbable intentions that are conceived exclusively for the purpose of preventing them.

WESTERN Europe as seen from Moscow resembles nothing so much as a powder keg which the least spark is liable to set off. Neither Soviet rules of conduct nor the European situation is likely to lure the Kremlin into testing a strategy of minor aggression that relies on the manifest American reluctance to unleash a total response or to provoke an immediate escalation.

For yet another reason, never, to my knowledge, properly emphasized, the American strategy of graduated response does not, for the time being, seem so likely to increase the probability, or reduce the improbability, of limited operations as is generally believed. The fact is that up to now, Soviet leaders and theoreticians have refused to subscribe to the ingenious distinctions so carefully elaborated by the American analysts.

This point calls for some reservations. We do not know with any degree of certainty just what strategic doctrine has in fact been adopted either by the Soviet government or by the military leaders. All speeches and books that appear in the Soviet Union, even those of an apparently scientific character, inevitably contain an ideological component, a dash of propaganda. Moreover, the strategy of deterrence cannot be conducted without an element of bluff. The Soviet leaders, in their answer to the twenty-five points raised by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, maintained that they would counter any U.S. aggression against Cuba with thermonuclear missiles. No one can tell whether this claim would be backed up in the hour of truth. Subject to this reservation, however, the fact remains that Soviet theoreticians seem rather baffled by the strategic universe that the American analysts have constructed, and Premier Khrushchev in particular was definitely opposed to this sort of speculation. He apparently believed that any conflict involving the two thermonuclear powers would fatally escalate to extremes — that is, become both global and total.

Let us assume that those now in power in Russia agree, and examine the possible consequences. The Soviet Union seems to act as though it were satisfied with what the American theoreticians refer to as a minimum deterrent, meaning a retaliatory capability sufficient to inflict, in response to any direct aggression, destruction deemed unacceptable to the enemy. It has not mass-produced strategic bombers able to strike at targets located within the continental United States, nor has it produced the hundreds of intercontinental missiles that U.S. experts worried about in 1957—1958. Whether because of inadequate resources or because they want to put more effort into succeeding generations of missiles, the Soviets have confined themselves to offsetting the huge American system by a certain response capability (a retaliatory capability that they consider secure regardless of circumstances) and by superiority in intermediate-range missiles over Western Europe’s means of defense or response. This was the meaning of Khrushchev’s remark to a U.S. journalist in 1962 that he was holding Europe hostage. The Soviets do not explicitly claim to be able to destroy the American retaliatory force, but they intimate that once nuclear explosives start “speaking.” nothing will be able to arrest escalation, and that they themselves will simultaneously attack launching ramps, airports, and cities.

THE United States for its part has, or thinks it has and will continue to have for a few more years, a certain strategic counterforce capability. It claims that it is in the common interest of both sides, recognized by both, to attempt to limit a conflict if and when one does break out. American policy, therefore, is to multiply the intermediate steps between total passivity and thermonuclear paroxysm. In American eyes the advocates of massive retaliation seem immoral (the amount of force applied should bear some relation to the significance of the crime committed or object at stake), imprudent (what will they do if backed against a wall?), and foolish (do they not understand that this sort of doctrine is tantamount to a bluff that sooner or later is bound to end in tragedy?).

The Soviet theoreticians, as seen from the perspective of Washington, are irrational. Thermonuclear arms make it necessary to revive, by way of technical innovation, the old doctrine of limited wars. The military leader must attempt to impose his will upon the enemy, but reason compels him to do so at the lowest cost to himself, and sometimes even to his opponent. In the old days one could always regard the destruction of the enemy’s armed forces as equivalent to total victory. Nowadays the destruction is likely to involve the entire country rather than merely the armed forces, unless the restraint formerly urged upon military leaders in the mobilization of resources and the exploitation ol victory is introduced into the conduct of the operations themselves. The American analysts consider that differentiation between the various possible phases, separating minor operations carried out with conventional arms from an all-out thermonuclear paroxysm, is the obvious and inevitable consequence of the technological revolution set off by thermonuclear arms.

The Americans regard the Soviet thesis as all the more irrational in that it keeps the Russians from exploiting their own unquestionable superiority. If we consider the situation in Europe, we find that Europeans no longer regard a massive Soviet attack as a major danger. Such an attack would in all probability provoke a nuclear response from the United States; in any event, it would entail the destruction of Western Europe, the very area for whose possession the aggressor would have taken an incommensurate risk. What Europeans now either fear or pretend to fear is that the subtle sophistry of a graduated response might tempt the Russians into a partial attack held below the atomic threshold. Luckily, however, the Russians, by refusing to believe in the possibility of limiting the scope of a conflict, aid in reducing the dangers created by the American theory.

The present asymmetry between Soviet and American theories is all the more paradoxical in that each country seems to be adopting the doctrine more appropriate to the other’s military situation. The Russians have the upper hand in conventional arms at many points along the borders that separate the two worlds, and hence would stand to gain from propagating the idea that containment of hostilities is possible; that thermonuclear arms constitute a “shield,” a deterrent that will prevent the enemy from using his own thermonuclear arms; and that henceforth conventional arms are the “sword,” the weapon of choice when it comes to dealing with the enemy at a low level of violence, with both sides being protected from escalation by the monstrous nature of the ultimate weapons.

I have often wondered whether or not it would be desirable for Soviet leaders to undergo a training period at the Rand Corporation. In a somewhat more serious vein, one might ask if in the interest of world peace it would be better for the leaders of both thermonuclear powers to think along analogous or divergent lines. Mutual understanding is imperative among allies, and the controversies within the Atlantic alliance derive at least partly from misunderstandings; but the absence of understanding between Russians and Americans may very well favor the prevention of war.

The Americans are in fact familiar with the officially proclaimed Russian doctrine that denies the possibility of limiting any conflict between the Big Two. They are far from taking the Russians at their word; as Albert Wohlstetter put it, “Between crises the Russians play poker; but once the crisis comes to a head they too play chess.” And in the 1962 Cuban crisis, for the first time they successfully tested their own doctrine of the “shield” and “sword.” But what they regard as Russian simplemindedness nonetheless effectively spurs them to an even greater caution; as long as the Russians cling to the primitive strategy of thermonuclear spasm, even if it may merely be so much talk, the Americans consider it the better part of wisdom to avoid direct confrontation at almost any price. The Russians in turn are not unaware of American theories, and their experts probably understand them, too. But they must again be thinking somewhat along the lines of “How can you figure those damned Yankees? They tell you that they aren’t interested in Korea, and then they spend three years lighting for it; after that they reduce the risk of escalation to a complex verbal construct as though they absolutely wanted to bait us into limited operations below the atomic threshold. What would really happen the day the fate of the world came to depend on such subtlelies?”

THUS, inadequate understanding coupled with mutual suspicion tends to keep each side from moving against the other. Mutual understanding, with both opponents subscribing to the same doctrine, whether of inevitable escalation or of multiple intermediate steps, might not be preferable at all. Russia and the United States threatening total response on every occasion would be rather like two poker players bluffing all the time or two drivers playing “chicken”; inevitably the moment is bound to arrive when neither “chickens out.” If both sides were to act upon the first doctrine, the results in the long run would be disastrous. But the second doctrine, if perfectly assimilated by the Big Two, would again involve dangers of its own. Each side would believe it safe to wield the “sword,” that is, superiority in conventional arms wherever this applies, without serious risk of escalation. Once this happens, the two camps could regain security only by a kind of parity at all levels. But deterrence by conventional arms has never been wholly effective in the past and is even less likely to work today if each side, familiar with the other’s way of thinking, stops being afraid of escalation.

This paean in praise of strategic asymmetry or lack of understanding is really less of a paradox than it seems. The one type of communication that the analysts regard as absolutely essential is the capacity to communicate at the moment of crisis, a function of the hot line. This understanding of strategic doctrines in advance of a crisis is a component of that same uncertainty whose necessity (in the dual sense of being both inevitable and indispensable) the analysts have stressed time and again. Of course, this is quite different from the classic concept of uncertainty. If A wants to deter B by making him fear the worst ahead of time and B refuses to let himself be deterred. A retreats before the apocalypse. He does not wish for perfect communications in advance of a crisis, but once it comes to a head, he thinks them desirable in order to avoid being impaled on the horns of a dilemma between surrender or death. The American doctrine aims at reducing the contradiction between strategy of deterrence and strategy of use implicit in the formula of massive retaliation; in the long run it is bound to spread, but stability at the upper level will have to be paid for by increased instability at the lower one. For the time being the uncertainty derives from the disparity between the Soviet threat of total response and the American threat of graduated response, with neither side fully accepting the other’s professed doctrine at face value.

One objection may be raised against this analysis: as long as the Americans have a certain counterforce capability, the Russians cannot use their conventional superiority as a “sword” because they do not want to give their rivals the advantage of a first strike. This, in fact, constitutes the rationalization of the Soviet doctrine according to the American theory. Personally, I am not sure that this rational formulation corresponds to the authentic motive.

An odd feature of this duel is that the Americans are playing chess while the Russians play poker. Now, the Russians are the world’s champion chess players, while the theory of games was worked out in Princeton around a poker table. Yet the American strategy of graduated response and calculated moves, of anticipating and weighing the possible countermoves, is closer to chess, while the Soviet strategy of brandishing the apocalyptic threat and preparing to retreat if blackmail is met with resolve is much more typical of poker.

It is possible that this paradox is explicable if the Soviet purpose is to eliminate the use of armed forces altogether and to play chess exclusively, but at a purely political level — subversion and guerrilla warfare being considered an integral part of politics.

ONLY once did the Soviets break the unwritten rules on the use of ballistic missiles in diplomatic offenses. (In the Berlin crisis Khrushchev indicated diplomatically offensive use, but in a much more vague manner.) Only once did the Big Two directly confront one another, one side taking the initiative by provocatively installing medium-range missiles some 125 miles off the coast of Florida, the other responding by a quasi-ultimatum, demanding and obtaining the withdrawal of Russian missiles, but in exchange for a more or less explicit American promise not to invade Cuba. The promise was explicit in exchange for the on-the-spot inspection. Castro opposed inspection, and the promise no longer fully applies.

To regard the Cuban episode as conclusive confirmation of American theories and doctrines would be to overstate the case. All circumstances in this instance combined to favor the Americans. They held an overwhelming local superiority in conventional arms. The theater of operations was close to their home grounds and thousands of miles removed from Russian bases. The average Soviet citizen knew nothing about the Cuban People’s Republic and might have found it rather difficult to understand why he should expose himself to terrifying danger for the sake of so trifling an objective. American public opinion, on the other hand, was at fever pitch and goaded the President, who would have jeopardized his political future if by inaction he had countenanced the establishment of a Soviet missile base in Cuba. The psychological factor, therefore, was weighted heavily in favor of the United States, since it was superior locally in conventional arms and its stakes in the encounter were infinitely greater than what the Russians could expect to gain.

Finally, we must remember that the retreat was an honorable one and that ultimately the American success proved limited in scope. Cuba remains a Soviet military base, powerfully defended against any invasion attempts carried out with only conventional arms, as well as a focus of subversion from which propaganda and guerrilla fighters spread throughout Latin America. In material terms the episode, as far as Moscow is concerned, amounted simply to a no-sale transaction; the Russians withdrew only the missiles, while President Kennedy failed to demand, as he probably could have done, the withdrawal of all Soviet military personnel.

In the area of atomic strategy, the Cuban episode lends itself to other interpretations as well. Thus, according to Stanley Hoffmann, “the Americans claim, first, that Cuba proved their determination to defend vital U.S. interests and, furthermore, that the crisis demonstrated the advantage of superiority in conventional arms. But in the eyes of many Europeans what the episode really proved was, first, that the peace of the world may continue to be jeopardized by Soviet moves based on inadequate appreciation of American resolve; second, that if the automobile cracks up because the driver failed to signal a turn far enough ahead of time, the passengers will be killed along with the driver; third, that in the Cuban encounter the automobile was able to scare the Soviets off the highway not only because it was more powerful but also because the driver gave visible evidence of his manifest determination not to flinch from escalation if it came to it.”

These three points are correct but contribute no decisive argument to either side in the great debate that rages within the Atlantic alliance. It is true that determination to escalate in case of need is essential to the efficacy of either use or the threat of use of conventional arms, but the American strategists have never denied this. The orthodox doctrine postulates the risk of escalation but does not conceive of it as being automatic.

It is unquestionably true that in the event of an accident the passengers would perish along with the driver. Arnold Toynbee has expressed the same idea more vividly: “No annihilation without representation.” But whatever the formulation, it merely raises the problem without contributing to its solution. How is one to grant the passengers representation while negotiating a tricky stretch of road? As to the delay in using directional signals, the danger is real but inseparable from that of a misunderstanding or of the risk that an aggressor will not let himself be deterred. Once again we come back to the eternal questions of who can deter whom, from what, in what circumstances, and how. Are the Europeans better able than the United States to deter the Russians from minor aggression? It is understandable enough for them to want to have their say and not to trust the driver blindly where their own lives are at stake. But unexceptional though these principles may be, the best way to put them into practice is far from clear.

The international situation does not warrant the heat of the arguments within the Atlantic alliance. Proponents of divergent or conflicting theses carry on as if one kind of strategy would increase the likelihood of minor aggression while another would bring about ultimate escalation. In fact, however, the Berlin crisis was the only one since President Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961 that seriously endangered world peace. The strategy worked out to cope with the probable course of that crisis was graduated response. The West rather than the Soviet Union would have had to take the initiative in any recourse to force, which means that force would initially have remained limited.

Even if the satellites did not have to depend on Big Brother for support, the Soviet Union and the sovietized countries of Eastern Europe would continue to be linked by a sense of solidarity far more spontaneous than the affinities between the United States and Western Europe, where one partner is in direct contact with the potential enemy while the other is several thousand miles away.

Missiles, of course, can traverse these thousands of miles within a mere half hour. But precisely for that reason they have only to be neutralized and the United States becomes safe once again, restored to its preferential position of arsenal and last reserve. The American strategy of graduated response — the McNamara doctrine — aims at minimizing the risk of the use of the only weapons to which the American mainland is really vulnerable. And this strategy, regardless of whether or not it is the most effective one, appears much too closely identified with the strictly national interests of the United States not to arouse European suspicions. To keep hostilities from escalating means turning Europe into both the theater and victim of operations, with U.S. participation limited to an expeditionary force.

But even if the United States were to behave with the greatest of wisdom, and the driver of the automobile were to inspire total confidence, the passengers would still resent the place accorded to them in the Atlantic alliance. Almost the entire American deterrent remains under completely American command. NATO is headed by an American general, appointed in fact by the President of the United States though chosen in theory by all the allied governments.

The national defense budget of the United States, totaling $50 billion, is twelve times the French budget, more than five times the budget of all other NATO members combined. This discrepancy is so vast that U.S. military and civilian chiefs inevitably exercise a preponderant influence in Atlantic councils, especially in matters concerning strategy. In the eyes of a traditional statesman like General dc Gaulle, Atlantic interdependence (or Atlantic association) is sheer window dressing, barely veiled hypocrisy designed to camouflage Europe’s reduction to political vassalage by the United States in the guise of protection. As long as the countries of Europe are content to let the United States retain a monopoly of the weapons regarded as decisive, they will be dependent proteges, if not satellites.

This quarrel was bound to erupt sooner or later, once Western Europe had rebuilt its ruins and regained its self-esteem. The passion with which it is being pursued, at least on the surface, stems from the McNamara doctrine (and the manner in which it was presented) as well as from the policies of General de Gaulle. The McNamara doctrine, even when completely understood, stung the sensibilities not only of many a Frenchman and German but also of other Europeans quite ready to leave the responsibility for thermonuclear arms and their use to the United States.

Alliances between countries that cherish their sovereignty are put to a grueling test by thermonuclear weapons. But the noncredibility of the threat brandished by a major power for the benefit of its protégés is at present more of a rationalization than an expression of profound intent. Any country is bound to be uneasy about leaving exclusive responsibility for decisions affecting its life and death up to another, even if it is an ally. If this ally will not share the fate of his protégés, they will profess fear of possible rash action on the part of their protector; but if the latter becomes equally vulnerable, they will express the opposite fear. The protector, in turn, will attempt to formulate a strategy minimizing the risk of suicidal involvement; that is, in the present context, of a thermonuclear war. But this again leads the proteges to fear other types of conflict. The major nuclear power will finally seek an implicit agreement with its enemy partner, equally interested in avoiding a nuclear holocaust. The allies of either rival are unlikely to be victimized militarily by such an implicit or explicit agreement, because it can be reached only on the basis of the status quo and mutual respect of vital interests, but they may become its political victims.

The truth, far more complex, is that at this time nations can neither rely wholly on alliances nor do entirely without them. This is why present diplomacy resembles that of the past more than some observers are inclined to believe. The novel aspect is the danger of dissolution to which the alliance is exposed as the junior partners rebel against the senior’s exclusive command and attempt to regain some mastery over their destiny.

This, however, does not justify concluding that the Atlantic alliance is doomed. It does mean that the links between its members are bound to weaken if, in the absence of an agreement on joint strategy, several countries decide to play a fully independent nuclear game. To this extent the national deterrents risk precipitating the very danger that theoretically they are supposed to prevent or compensate for — that is, the decline of the American deterrent.

Although each of the participants in the Atlantic debate tends to exaggerate vastly the implications of whatever strategy he happens to oppose, the disagreement itself is genuine; it involves a multiplicity of dimensions, it will be pursued inexorably, and there is as yet nothing to indicate that it will end in accord.

Raymond Aron’s forecast of the spread of nuclear weapons, including a consideration of Red China, will appear in the January ATLANTIC.