The Exorbitant Anachronism

A conceptual guide to the major EastWest issue for the rest of the centuryhow to cut the price of a military standoff that costs the two sides $600 billion a year to sustain


NATO IS A SUBJECT THAT DRIVES THE DAGGER OF boredom deep, deep into the heart. Perhaps in elite circles in Europe people pay attention to its workings; some few may even feel an improbable tingle of transnational patriotism over “the Alliance.” But in the United States NATO is the exclusive property of academics who hold conferences at European resorts, or at the kind of American resort that should be in Europe, where they read turgid reports on why the United States must spend more tax dollars on an alliance to which not one American in ten has ever given a moment’s thought. It is a rule of intellectual life in America: in any subject dominated by “study groups,” such as NATO, the tacit goal is the diffusing of a fog of boredom, to repel boarders and thus to guarantee the total immunization from practical result so conducive to the professor’s dream—endless, subsidized talk that begins in trivia and achieves a tentative culmination in the kind of “on the one hand, on the other” formulation that makes night fall across the mind.

NATO has been made safe for the academics because the politicians have left it alone. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization began in 1949 in legendary bipartisanship, with the support of the Republican Arthur Vandenberg, of Michigan, who was the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and had earlier been an isolationist, for the idea of America’s joining a European military alliance. And with the exceptions of George McGovern’s 1972 call for America to “come home” from its foreign military involvements and the former senator Mike Mansfield’s failed attempts to recall troops from Europe, NATO has been pickled in bipartisanship ever since. For Democratic politicians in particular, obeisance to the Alliance has provided useful political cover. You could justify a vote against the B-1 bomber, the MX missile, or the Strategic Defense Initiative by citing your offsetting vote for greater “readiness” for our troops on those “frontiers of freedom” so beloved of congressional orators. There are, after all, no pressure groups of articulate Americans lobbying for reductions in our subvention of NATO (as there are, in indignant abundance, against nuclear weapons), and in their absence the bipartisan consensus for the Alliance as it exists today is likely to endure. To count on a sudden access of vision or political courage from the Democratic Party on this issue is to bet against the evidence.

What might bring a change—and thus make the form and degree of our participation in NATO a matter of politics, of popular debate and choice—is not statesmanship or courage but the instinct for survival. Long ago Franklin Roosevelt laid down the formula for Democratic victory: tax and tax, spend and spend, elect and elect. But with the level of taxation apparently beyond the pale of debate, the Democrats cannot make the kind of promises of new spending that might bring new constituencies to their party. To give themselves something meatier than competence to stand for, they must look to the existing universe of spending for the wherewithal to spend and elect.

NATO should be a veritable El Dorado for them; or, indeed, for a Republican Party seeking a wider constituency through tax cuts. NATO costs United States taxpayers $150 billion to $170 billion a year. That comes to “significantly more than the defense contributions of the other 15 NATO members put together,” according to a recent congressional report on “burden-sharing,” which is NATO-speak for who pays what. In 1986 we spent $1,155 per capita on defense, while our “Alliance partners” spent an average of $318. Now, we do have responsibilities beyond the North Atlantic Treaty area, and our greater spending reflects that. Still, 60 percent of our defense budget goes to defend Europe, which is to say that 60 percent of $1,155 goes to Europe, which comes to $693 per citizen per year, or almost $1,600 per taxpayer per year.

Those numbers ought to be available for indignation; $170 billion every year ought to make you grind your teeth. Who could possibly defend such an outrageous subsidy? The answer is that last refuge of journalists whose reach for generalization exceeds their analytical grasp— the establishment.

Pat Schroeder can tell you all about the establishment. She made an exploratory run for the presidency in 1987 built around the theme of getting the allies to pay more of the cost of their own defense, and she got flayed, she says, as a “western woman” (she is a congresswoman from Colorado) threatening the foundations of the revered Alliance. “People think of The Washington Post and The New York Times as liberal,” she told me recently, “and in our party people get into a fetal position and put their thumbs in their mouths if those papers say a nasty word about them. And if the Democrats said anything on burden-sharing, both of those papers would come down on them as flatearthers, dinosaurs, isolationists. In our party people would rather be called perverts than isolationists.”

I asked her what the response to her call for burdensharing was like beyond the Europhile ramparts of the establishment. “Outside Washington and outside The New York Times,”she said, “people get it when you say that our military allies are also our trading partners, so if you’re going to have a level playing field on the trade side, it’s got to be more even on the military side, too. It can’t be ‘Dial 1-800USA and we’ll go anywhere.’ ‘Persian Gulf? We’re on our way!’ And then we get there and we start wimping around, asking, begging, ‘Could you send a hospital ship that would make this look like an allied thing? Please?”’

Schroeder is one of the leaders in Congress on “family policy,” an emerging cluster of issues tailored to appeal to service-needy families, and when she looks at the annual $170 billion NATO payout she sees day care, and better public schools, and better health care for aging parents. She sees votes. But many of her colleagues have not yet gotten this message. “In Washington family policy is not a power issue,” she told me. “There are no PACS around it. Toddlers don’t pay honoraria. And not only that: you mention ‘families’ and people in Washington think you’ve got lace on your shorts. They’re into power projection—the MX, the D-5, the Midgetman. That’s what’s considered serious in Washington.” Other countries, she pointed out, have other criteria of seriousness. “The standard of living is higher in other countries than it is here,” she said. “We are paying a hundred and seventy billion to defend Europe, where college is free. Health care—free. Day care? No problem. They put their taxes into those things, and we spend our taxes defending them.”

WE CAN’T GO ON LIKE THIS. THAT, AT ANY RATE, IS the unargued premise of this article. We can’t go on like this not only because it’s absurdly expensive but also because it’s absurd in a darker sense as wellin extremis we might have to commit suicide to defend Europe. According to one poll, 81 percent of Americans believe that we would use nuclear weapons only as a response to a Soviet nuclear attack on the United States. They couldn’t be more wrong, and their nescience is part of the wages of bipartisanship on NATO. “Flexible response,” our main deterrent strategy in Europe, pledges us to use nuclear weapons, if necessary, against a Soviet conventional attack on Germany. “To contain Moscow,” writes Christopher Layne, a heterodox foreign-policy analyst, “the United States, in a geopolitical sense, became Germany.” “Rational states,” he says, “do not base their strategy on a pledge to commit suicide to protect other states’ security.” Henry Kissinger had this fateful quality in mind when, in a famous speech before the NATO Foreign Ministers, he said, “Don’t you Europeans keep asking us to multiply assurances we cannot possibly mean and that if we do mean, we should not want to execute, and which if we execute, would destroy our civilization?”

This article will explore paths out of the exorbitant anachronism of NATO. For while the political parties on this issue, as on so many others, have offered portraits in paralysis, thinkers both here and in Europe have given the reconstitution of the Alliance some refreshingly creative thought. In a signal development, moreover, their ideas on a new European security system have migrated to the Soviet Union, where General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, saddled with an exorbitant anachronism of his own (the Warsaw Pact), has given voice to them. Since the Soviets, under Gorbachev, set the American agenda, his interest in the new ideas has gotten the attention of the State Department. That institution, to be sure, has a way of escorting all fresh approaches to an early, unmarked grave. And certainly NATO’s opening proposal in the new conventional-arms-reduction talks that began last March in Vienna contains not a breath of urgency. NATO wants the Warsaw Pact forces to be cut drastically, which is good, but wants its own forces cut only tokenly, which will knock perhaps a few million off our $170 billion tab. With Gorbachev calling the tune, however, you can’t tell what will happen in Vienna. Count on winning the Irish sweepstakes sooner, but it just might dawn on this government that it is not doomed to wait for Gorbachev’s every move, that statesmanship is not an exclusive Soviet prerogative in this era, and that George Bush’s America can emulate Mikhail Gorbachev’s Russia and let its foreign policy serve its domestic necessities.

An Aftershock

NO U.S. TAXPAYER WILL BE SURPRISED TO LEARN THAT NATO was a European idea. “The idea of a military alliance did not occur to the original containment people—Marshall, Kennan, and the others,” John Lewis Gaddis, a leading diplomatic historian of the postwar era, told me not long ago. “They started out thinking that economic aid would be sufficient to do what they wanted to do—restore the balance of power in Europe in the wake of World War Two. It was the Europeans who asked for an explicit military alliance,” Gaddis said. “But there was no idea in the original concept that we would commit troops to Europe. We would furnish a security guarantee only, not station troops there. The decision to commit troops came later. It was one of the aftershocks of the Korean War.” The North Korean attack on South Korea in June of 1950 was widely considered at the time to be a “feint” to cover a major Soviet move on Western Europe.

I asked Gaddis if there was any evidence that the Soviets had then or ever planned such an attack. “An ambiguous piece of evidence comes out of the memoirs of a Czech Party official,” he told me, “who describes Stalin in 1951 as having ordered planning for the invasion of Europe. But that doesn’t mean much, since states routinely draw up worst-case contingency plans to invade potential enemies.” Gaddis went on, “Moreover, Stalin was much less of a risk-taker than Khrushchev. This view of Stalin, of course, obliges you to account for the Korean anomaly, but there is plausible evidence, even there, that North Korea invaded South Korea on its own, without Soviet instigation.” Although Stalin’s attack on Europe never came, the aftershock lingers on.

Today it takes the shape of the fourplus U.S. Army divisions in Germany. They are a formidable force, heavily armored, highly motivated, and backed by a multibilliondollar logistical supply train designed to keep them in the field longer than their Soviet counterparts. Still, their deployment has always been as much for psychological as for military purposes. They are a reassurance to the Europeans, who fear that unless our boys are being killed on the frontiers of freedom, we will think twice about inviting our destruction by making good our promise to save the few acres of the Alliance that Providence will have saved from pulverization. Under the Gorbachev persuasion, however, the Europeans seem to need less and less reassurance. A recent poll showed, for example, that only four percent of the British public now sees the Soviet Union as a serious threat to British security. Another poll showed that 80 percent of West Germans now believe that there is no longer a military threat from the East, while 50 percent have negative attitudes about aspects of the U.S. presence in their country.

That presence is undoubtedly inconvenient. Just under 790,000 soldiers, including 245,000 American GIs, are based in West Germany, which is the size of Oregon. That works out to more than eight soldiers per square mile, as opposed to 0.4 soldiers per square mile in the United States. Just in reparations payments for damages to property, the training maneuvers of this enormous force cost the allied governments nearly $70 million annually. In the skies above West Germany, NATO aircraft make 80,000 low-altitude training flights every year, which create intolerable levels of noise, and also danger—last year seventy-five civilians were killed in West Germany by military air crashes. A poll conducted in December found that 71 percent of West Germans favored a total ban on these flights, even though the Bonn government had come out for a partial ban and even though the allied fliers say they need the drills to learn the terrain of the country they are sworn to defend.

The 790,000 NATO soldiers face 995,000 Warsaw Pact soldiers across the 800-kilometer Central Front. In the whole Atlantic-to-Urals theater, which is the “reduction area” that the current Vienna talks will cover, there are six million soldiers and airmen armed with 10,000 nuclear weapons, making for a combined cost, to East and West, of $600 billion a year. It is, writes Jonathan Dean, a U.S. ambassador to the last conventional-arms talks, “the largest, the deadliest, and the most costly peacetime military confrontation in history.”

As the disparity in numbers along the Central Front indicates, NATO is behind the Pact in manpower and in tanks (12,800 to 18,800), tactical aircraft (1,200 to 2,350), and artillery pieces (3,100 to 11,100). The numbers make it seem that NATO is cooked if the Pact strikes. NATO, though, adheres to what the strategic analyst Barry Posen calls a different “theory of victory” from that of the Pact, which holds that victory goes to the side with more “teeth”— more men with guns. NATO thinks victory goes to the side with more “tail”—a thicker logistical umbilical cord for pumping in fresh men and supplies as soon as they are needed. Is NATO right? In the wake of the INF treaty, which will eliminate U.S. intermediate-range nuclear weapons from Europe, that question has taken on a new edge. In the burgeoning field of security studies, it has touched off a sophisticated, vituperative, and arcane debate, featuring such exotica as “Lanchester attrition models,” “armored division equivalent scores,” and algebraic models of what might happen if the armies actually clash on the German plain. It is not my purpose to descend into this fray. Rather, I want to emphasize the points of agreement between the two sides in the debate as a way of establishing the nature of the military challenge with which NATO must be prepared to cope.

THOSE WHO THINK THAT NATO’S CONVENTIONAL forces are strong and those who think they are weak relative to the Pact’s agree about what it is those forces must deter or defeat: a blitzkrieg attack by the Pact tank armies. The Soviets cannot go around the NATO line; mountains on one end and the Baltic Sea on the other prevent that. So they must break through it, get into the rear of the NATO forces, smash their communications, sow panic, and in general do to NATO what the Germans did to the British and French forces defending France in 1940— cut them off from one another, the better to destroy them piecemeal. In a blitzkrieg. John Mearsheimer writes in his seminal book Conventional Deterrence, “the offense literally outruns the defense. The attack succeeds because the defense is incapable of containing what Liddell Hart aptly called ‘the expanding torrent.’ ”

To dam that torrent at its first gush, a strong defensive line is needed. In France in 1940 the Allied forces employed a static defense; they fought from fixed positions and had little ability to move up or down the front to stanch the flood. NATO has highly mobile armored divisions to effect what it calls a strategy of forward defense— “a linear arrangement of forward-deployed forces that have significant tactical mobility,” to quote Mearsheimer.

Mobility alone, however, is no guarantee that NATO can avoid the fate of the Allies in 1940. Thickness (sheer mass both overall and at the point or points of the attack) is equally important. To deter a blitzkrieg, and to repel one should deterrence fail, NATO must keep the “forward edge of battle area,”or FEBA, thickly populated. “There is an optimum number of troops required to hold a specific length of territory, an optimum force-to-space ratio,”Mearsheimer writes, employing a concept of military science that makes both sides in the debate over NATO’s post-INF strength uneasy about the withdrawal of at least some U.S. troops from the FEBA to which the Vienna talks are likely to lead.

For years NATO has decried the Pact’s superiority in numbers of men and weapons. Now, on the eve of historic negotiations with a Soviet leader who has already made impressive unilateral cuts, NATO may be to some extent hostage to its own past propaganda about numbers, which have, after all, never figured in its theory of victory. In many politically attractive reduction schemes NATO could come out ahead of the Pact in numbers but be weaker, if it has thinned out its forces to a density below that dictated by the force-to-space ratios necessary to make its forward-defense strategy work. The algebra of force to space is implacable: To hold so many square miles, it takes a force so big. A thin FEBA is an invitation to blitzkrieg.

But must the FEBA be thinned, one might ask? Can’t German boys take the place of American boys withdrawn from the line? Demography joins geography to say no. Starting early in the 1990s there will not be enough German boys of draft age to man the current German army, much less to fill space left by departing GIs. The Germans will have to hire Turks to people the line.

Ideally, French boys would be available for the job, and there has, in fact, been talk in the diplomatic press that France might want to return to NATO (De Gaulle pulled the country out of NATO’s military structure in the sixties) if we leave a leadership vacuum to be filled. The French have trained a brigade with the West German army, and there are other straws in the wind. As Western Europe’s largest country, France should be in NATO, but it won’t come in unless we start to get out; pride would not permit France to play second fiddle to us. They don’t like to face it in Washington, but we are not irreplaceable. A canny Yankee statesmanship would manipulate the bottomless vanity of the French to get them to take our place in the Alliance in much the same way that Tom Sawyer got the idlers to paint Aunt Polly’s fence. Before we were powerful, we were shrewd.

Meanwhile, the Soviets have their own force-to-space anxieties. They have to ask themselves how far they can cut their forces in Eastern Europe and still retain their ability to coerce, overawe, and intimidate the restive peoples of what were once unblushingly referred to as “the captive nations.”

These parallel fears about numbers—the one military, the other political—are the key limiting factor in the Vienna talks. They will impede the negotiations and bracket their progress unless a new formula for Central European security can be found.

Qualitative Disarmament

HERBERT HOOVER HAS GONE DOWN IN HISTORY AS the embodiment of heartless, unimaginative conservatism, a President who did nothing, as FDR did much, to lift the misery of the Depression. Hoover deserves a better press. He may soon come into his own in a different guise—as the godfather of a new peace in Europe.

In June of 1932, at the Geneva Disarmament Conference, President Hoover proposed a plan for comprehensive disarmament aimed at “increasing the comparative power of the defense through decreases in the power of attack.”Specifically, Hoover, who happened to be a Quaker, called for “the abolition of all tanks, all chemical warfare, and all largemobile guns; the abolition of all bombing planes, the total prohibition of all bombardment from the air; and reduction by one third of battleships and submarines, and by one quarter of aircraft carriers, cruisers, and destroyers.”

The Hoover Plan might have ended war as we know it; instead, the plan died aborning, principally because Hitler removed Germany from the Geneva Conference in October of 1933 and shortly afterward from the League of Nations. Still, in the interval between Hoover’s pronouncement and Hitler’s coup de grâce, the Hoover Plan dangled a plausible dream of peace before a world rushing toward war.

After defeating Hoover in the November election. President Roosevelt seconded his vision for peace in a statement to the Geneva Conference that laid down the formula for what has come to be known as qualitative disarmament—“qualitative" because it seeks to reduce the kinds, rather than the sheer numbers, of weapons: “If all nations will agree wholly to eliminate from possession and use weapons which make possible a successful attack, defenses will automatically become impregnable, and the frontiers and independence of every nation will become secure.”

The idea behind qualitative disarmament is appealingly simple. If what Liddell Hart called “the defense-breaking weapons”—tanks, mobile artillery, attack aircraft, poison gas—are taken away or drastically limited in number, the blitzkrieg is not a tenable strategy. You can’t, after all, burst into an opponent’s rear unless you first pierce his forward line, and you can’t pierce his forward line without those defense-breaking weapons. The blitzkrieg is a strategy for a quick victory, a short war. Rule it out, by ruling out the weapons that make it possible, and you are left with the prospect of a repeat of 1914-1918, a long war of attrition. Conventional deterrence in the modern world rests on the hope that the surest way of keeping the peace is making your opponent face the certainty of a war of attrition. It is perhaps supererogatory to add that the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who engaged in a war of attrition with Iraq for eight years, does not belong to the modern world.

TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT QUALITATIVE DISARMAment, I spoke recently with Mark Sommer, the research director of the Alternative Defense Project, in New York City, one of a number of groups dedicated, in their different ways, to former President Ronald Reagan’s goal: peace through strength.

“Qualitative disarmament,” Sommer told me, “reasserts a distinction that has been lost for years between the capacity to attack and the capacity to protect. Nuclear deterrence has dominated our thinking about defense in general. In that theory, it’s true, it is only through the capacity to attack, or to threaten attack, that you have the capacity to protect. But it’s possible to think of conventional deterrence in a less punitive way.”

“Look at the standoff in Europe,” he said. “Each alliance says it’s configured only for defense, yet both armies are prepared to take the battle over into the other’s territory. They don’t understand that they could relinquish that capacity to attack without weakening their capacity to protect.” NATO would both feel and be more secure if the Pact forces along the inter-German border did not have “defense-breaking” weapons. The Pact would feel and be more secure if the United States did not have the offensive weapons to execute its two broad doctrines: the Air-Land Battle, which calls for ground and tactical air forces to engage the enemy not only at the front but also in his own territory, and the Follow-on-Forces Attack, in which highly accurate smart weapons would cut the tail of a Pact offensive with deep strikes at its rear. An arms-reduction scheme that could pluck the defense-breaking weapons from the arsenals of both sides, Sommer said, would allow both sides to defend the same territory at much less risk of escalation in a crisis and at much less cost.

How do you tell the difference between offensive and defensive weapons, so that you can pluck out one and leave the other? I put that question to Paul Walker, a weapons analyst, the author of several books on defense, and the co-director of the Institute for Peace and International Security, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Offensive weapons, Walker said, have a long range, their payloads are heavy, and they are highly mobile. Defensive weapons have shorter ranges, they are less accurate, and they are less mobile across, but not up and down, a given front. Walker conceded that in practice these fine distinctions might be hard to make. “Frankly,” he said, “the best way of telling offensive from defensive weapons is to ask the other side what weapons of yours they perceive as offensive.”

The notion of asking the other side what weapons scare it, so that you can get rid of them, would no doubt get a hoot in the local pub. The whole idea is to scare the other guy, right? Wrong. Scaring the other guy leads to arms-race instability: you build, he builds, you build some more, and pretty soon that $170 billion we spend on NATO rises to $225 billion, and beyond. That way lies penury. And yet it’s the direction in which the Bush Administration appears to be heading.

In the presidential campaign Bush talked about implementing something called “competitive strategies” to strengthen NATO, which apparently means rapidly developing and deploying a new generation of deep-strike weapons aimed at preventing the Pact from reinforcing its initial attack. These weapons, which would simply implement the Follow-on-Forces Attack doctrine, are deeply offensive in character, even though our expressed intention is to use them only in counterattack. Competitive strategies—so named because they would use our “competitive” advantage, high technology, to counter the Pact’s big numbers—look like an attempt to secure a unilateral advantage over the Soviets à la Strategic Defense Initiative. Used as a bargaining chip in the Vienna talks, the threat of these high-tech weapons might wrest from the Soviets the kind of asymmetrical reductions in conventional forces that they agreed to in nuclear forces in the INF treaty (four to one). But if the Bush Administration has any idea of using the new weapons to compensate for a decrease in U.S. ground forces, it should think again.

A prime objective of U.S. policy in the Vienna talks should be to mute the threat of the “standing-start” attack—a surprise attack launched by the twenty Soviet divisions in East Germany against the NATO line. The standing-start attack has long been NATO’s chief anxiety, and the Soviets would be fools to declaw it if we had plans to field weapons that would give us a surprise-attack capability of our own.

In his statement at the May, 1988, summit with President Reagan, Gorbachev put forward a four-step program for cutting the forces in Europe which offers a better way, the way of Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt. The key step is “eliminating the offensive core” of each alliance’s forces—qualitative disarmament. Which raises a practical question: How would armies stripped of their offensive cores defend themselves and their territories?

Non-Offensive Defense

IN LATE 1987 FOUR WESTERN PROPONENTS OF THE IDEAS and strategies that are grouped under the rubric of “non-offensive defense” wrote Gorbachev a letter outlining their views. He wrote back with a general endorsement of their thinking, and urged them to develop it further. It was, says Jonathan Dean, the former conventionalarms negotiator, in his important forthcoming study of the prospects for a conventional-arms treats in Europe, “a remarkable example” of East-West communication. “Western advocates of non-offensive defense,” he says, “attracted the attention of the Soviet defense intellectuals and academicians, who sold General Secretary Gorbachev on the merits of these ideas.”

If parity in men and weapons has been the main goal of NATO in its past and now in its current talks with the Pact, superiority is the goal of non-offensive defense; superiority, however, not of one side over the other but of the defense over the offense. You have only to consider what Roger Ailes or Lee Atwater could do with the notion of superiority as against parity to grasp its latent political uses.

The doyen of non-offensive defense is a West German defense intellectual with a name from Central Casting: Horst Alfheldt. In 1976 Alfheldt wrote a book outlining a wholly new strategy for NATO. In place of armored divisions, he wanted NATO to rely on “Tekhno-Kommandoes,” groups of from twenty to thirty men armed with hand-held precision-guided missiles. At the threat of war 10,000 Tekno-Kommandoes would spread out both across the front and deep behind it, taking up positions at hardened sites fitted out with enough supplies and ammunition to sustain them throughout the battle. Because the groups would be small, they would offer the Pact no concentrated target for conventional or nuclear artillery or air strikes. Because they would be equipped with next-generation high-tech weapons, they would wreak havoc on the turrets and treads of the Pact’s tanks. The Tekhno-Kommandoes, in addition, would be backed by a thick network of rocket artillery, made up of rocket launchers cunningly camouflaged in the terrain. Each launcher, ideally, would be used only once, so that it could not draw counterbattery fire from Pact gunners, who would, in effect, have nothing to shoot at but the screeching air. Suppose the Pact attacked on a fifty-kilometer front (roughly the width of the key gaps in the inter-German border which the allies are most concerned about covering) that was defended by five rockets per square kilometer, each with a range of forty kilometers. “As it crossed the frontier,” Alfheldt wrote, “every attacking unit would be in the range of fire of all the network’s rockets inside a semicircle with a 40 km radius. Thus 12,500 missiles would be ready to attack the intruding unit.”If the intrepid attacker nevertheless penetrated 100 kilometers deep behind that fifty-kilometer front, up to 100,000 rockets could fall on him, utterly spoiling his day. The Tekhno-Kommandoes may have a Bück Rogersmeets—Danny the Red flavor, but this is clearly not a scheme hatched by sandal-wearing pacifists who wouldn’t know the business end of a revolver from a cord of wood.

Some versions of non-offensive defense completely eliminate tanks. Others use tanks to put lethal sting into a “spider-web defense.” As envisioned by its theoreticians, the web would consist of 450 dispersed infantry battalions manned by 300,000 West Germans (which is about the troop strength of the current West German army). These troops would be supported by a rear-echelon mobile force, half West German and half NATO, of 200,000— the spider.

The spider-web battlefield would be framed by a belt of mines and sensors adjacent to the border. Immediately behind this would begin a checkerboard of prepared strong points whose defenders would aim multidirectional fire at the attackers, throw up barriers, and lay down minefields to channel the attack. The spider would descend into the web to disrupt the attack and to relieve besieged strong points. Against the thick web the expanding torrent of the blitzkrieg would find no outlet; it could not outrun what would amount to a defense in depth. Caught in the web, Pact forces would be prey for the spider. But most important, “as the spider would not be able to operate outside the web, which would be confined to West German territory,” a theoretician of the strategy writes, “the concept is unambiguously defensive.”

Horst Alfheldt’s original vision was to make non-offensive defense a unilateral policy: something that either NATO or West Germany could do on its own, to strengthen its defenses without threatening either arms race or crisis instability with the Pact. A stronger conventional defense, Alfheldt reasoned, could allow NATO to dispense with its first-use flexible-response strategy and perhaps with nuclear weapons altogether. That, in turn, might mean that Germany would not be turned into rubble if deterrence failed. This vision of a Germany able to defend itself without becoming a charnel house in the bargain is one reason why non-offensive defense has been taken up by the leading German opposition party and why even the Kohl government’s coalition partners, the Free Democrats, have said some good things about it. Until Gorbachev, it appeared that the unilateral emphasis would put the curse on non-offensive defense. But Gorbachev’s interest in qualitative disarmament, and his provocative hints about reconfiguring the Pact forces, have made it conceivable that there could be negotiations for the adoption of the new strategy by both sides.

With or without the mobile spider force, non-offensive defense would create a thickly populated FEBA; the defense in depth, according to military thinkers, is an excellent strategy to discourage or repel a blitzkrieg. The same cannot be said, however, for a strategy of forward defense with an inadequate number of men and weapons to execute it. If NATO stays with its current strategy, in other words, it cannot afford to make the kinds of reductions in forces that would save real money. Non-offensive defense would cost money too, but most of it would have the virtue of being German.

Non-offensive defense has one major military advantage over the current alternative. Critics of forward defense point convincingly to its potentially catastrophic weakness: everything depends on timely mobilization. Even those analysts, like Mearsheimer, who are optimistic about NATO’s ability to fight the Pact to a standstill concede that unless the NATO governments call up their reserves at the first hint of a Pact mobilization, the Pact will win. But in a moment of tension to rank with the Cuban missile crisis, would the NATO governments dare to stir the wrath of their opposition parties and peace movements by calling for prompt mobilization? Fearing that mobilization would be provocative to the Pact, which could use it as an excuse to torque a crisis into war, they might well dither, while thousands upon thousands of Soviet soldiers streamed out of Russia and toward the line. The NATO governments are justified in these fears over mobilization, as the Soviet government is in its fears, because the heavily armored NATO forces have the capability to take the offensive—to smash into Eastern Europe and accomplish its “liberation.”But a call to the Tekhno-Kommandoes or the web forces to take up their strictly defensive positions would carry no offensive threat, and consequently would be easier to make. On the central issue of mobilization, therefore, non-offensive defense has a clear edge over current NATO strategy.


NON-OFFENSIVE DEFENSE HAS COME UNDER FIRE from many quarters. Although it is a formula for defensive superiority, it did emerge from what could broadly be called the European peace movement, which provenance is the kiss of death in hard-boiled Washington. Military men, understandably, don’t like the idea of sacrificing their big-ticket offensive weapons. The arms makers could hardly be enthusiastic about that prospect either, though the high-tech aura of the Tekhno-Kommandoes might give them an opening. The bureaucrats in the State Department and the Pentagon and the National Security Council, and their friends in the press and among the opinion makers, would of course resist any effort to reduce American hegemony anywhere—especially in Europe, which is such a grand place to visit for the odd conference, seminar, or military review.

Can a set of ideas that threatens such powerful constituencies succeed? Probably not. We may get some qualitative disarmament from the Soviets, but the force-to-space arguments of the military will limit how far we can go and how much money we can save. A clear party difference on the issue could alter this dour prognosis. But the Democrats are already snakebitten by the charge of being “soft on defense.” Fancy them mustering the nerve to adopt an idea fathered by “Euroweenies” which would force NATO to scrap most of its arsenal! Lee Atwater would have their tails.

The last conventional-arms-reduction talks went on in Vienna for fifteen years, and they were a total failure. Paul Walker, the arms analyst, told me a story that illustrates one reason why. Recently he and some colleagues of his interviewed a number of people prominent in security policy to see if they were open to the ideas of qualitative disarmament and non-offensive defense. “Most of them agreed that the Mutual Balanced Force Reduction Talks had been a disaster,” he told me. “But a minority of the career bureaucrats we spoke to said they thought the talks were highly successful. Puzzled, I asked one of them why he held this curious view. A cynical smile played over his face as he answered, ‘Because we didn’t pull the troops out. The talks allowed us to stage a show in Vienna while keeping the troops in Europe.’

‘“Well, now,’ I asked him,” Walker said, “‘What are your hopes for the new arms-reduction talks?’ He smiled that cynical smile again and said, ‘We think they’ll be equally successful.'”

That kind of immobilism is possible only when bureaucrats operate in a politics-free environment. Alas, the Alliance is apt to remain that for the foreseeable future. We need a Huey Long to popularize the issue of America’s saving money through greater European autonomy in defense, but few Democrats—with the notable exception of Sam Nunn, who has proposed a 50 percent reduction in the forces of both alliances—have the “strength” credentials to do so.

The absence of any discernible public pressure, the probability of opposition from the professional military, the likelihood that even serious arms-reductions negotiations would bog down in distinguishing offensive from defensive weapons, an apparent split in the Soviet ranks between the military and the civilian defense intellectuals over the merits and meaning of defensive strategies, and the certainty of more unilateral moves by Gorbachev on a par with last December’s 500,000-man cut in his forces— these portents of sterility and diplomatic defeat have led some observers to contemplate formulas more radical than arms-reductions talks for extricating America from the exorbitant anachronism.

Mutual Disengagement

CHRISTOPHER LAYNE CALLS HIMSELF A TAFT REPUBlican, and one’s inclination is to take him at his word. Layne was an adviser to the Bush campaign, but perhaps because he holds unusual views, he was not invited to join the new administration. He has a Ph.D. from Berkeley in international relations and writes frequently for prestigious publications in that field, but he makes his living as a lawyer in Los Angeles.

In a series of articles that combine strategic acumen with political savvy, Layne has staked out a position on NATO of which Senator Robert Taft, who in the late forties fought our entry into a European military alliance, would be proud. What Layne wants is nothing less than the disengagement of both superpowers from Europe.

“I want to get the Soviet army out of Europe and back to the Soviet Union, where it belongs,”he told me when we spoke not long ago. “In order to do that, we will have to take our forces out of Germany and bring them back to the United States, where they belong.”

Why, I asked, is it so important to get the Soviet army out of Europe? His answer surprised me. “Because the risk of war breaking out is too great if it remains there,”he said. I asked him to explain.

“Wars are not caused by nations’ having armies,”he said. “Wars are caused by political conflicts that create crises that spin out of control. Now, the Soviets are not going to wake up one morning and say, ‘Let’s invade Europe today.’ That’s just not going to happen. But their being in Eastern Europe prevents the natural political evolution of the Eastern European countries. Thus political tensions within those countries fester—they have no safety valve. Sooner or later, under these conditions, an explosion will happen; popular unrest will break out. What will the Soviets do then? Will they sit back and watch their empire disintegrate, or will they be tempted to launch a war against the West to save the empire?”

How would a war against the West help them do that? I asked. Layne invoked a parallel to the Austro-Hungarian empire in answer. Fearful that the example of an independent Serbia would provoke separatist movements among the multifarious peoples of its empire, Austro-Hungary launched a pre-emptive attack against Serbia that triggered the engulfing catastrophe of the First World War. In the “war for the empire” scenario, think of Western Europe as Serbia and Russia as Austro-Hungary. Think further of what Layne calls “the immense magnetic attraction" that Western Europe exerts over Eastern Europe. Now consider how this magnetic attraction looks to the Soviets. They are properly afraid, Layne says, that pluralism and nationalism will continue to quicken not only within Eastern Europe but among the peoples of “the inner empire"—the Balts, the Ukrainians, and others. Separatism in Poland might spread separatism in the Ukraine. In thinking through how to deal with it, the Soviets might conclude that they had three choices, none of them good: do nothing and watch their empire disintegrate, strike at the offending provinces in the certain knowledge that they would have to do it again in a generation, or strike at the magnetic attraction doing the disintegrating. From panic springs folly. Perestroika and glasnost, in combination with the magnetic attraction, might spark events in Eastern Europe whose consequences cannot be foretold. Should a crisis within the Soviet empire erupt, Layne wants the Soviet army off the borders of the West, where it sits today.

“Disengagement makes it much more unlikely that war will break out in that scenario,” Layne said. “For one thing, the Soviets would almost certainly have to fight their way through Eastern Europe to get at the West, and they know it. But it’s also important to point out that disengagement is not just a military process; it’s a way of finding a political outcome for the Soviets’ problem in Eastern Europe. Which is, how do you keep those countries more or less aligned with the Soviet Union in their external policy, while giving them the autonomy to make the internal political and economic reforms that are necessary to forestall unrest?”

Layne, in short, wants a Finlandized Eastern Europe, and he thinks that George Bush should want it too, should see that mutual disengagement is the only way to get it, and should act boldly to bring it about. Specifically, he wants Bush to seize the diplomatic initiative from Gorbachev by proposing that both superpowers remove their nuclear and conventional forces from Europe, “demobilize" them—return them to civilian life—asymmetrically, to account for the geographical asymmetries, and pledge that neither will be the first to put them back.

He would retain a “residual nuclear deterrence” for Europe by means of submarines based off the European coasts—thus ending the suicide pact and restoring our “nuclear sovereignty.” Otherwise, he would let Europe be Europe.

Does Europe want to be Europe? Layne cites current West GermanAmerican differences over the Lance missile (we want to keep this short-range nuclear weapon; the Germans, knowing that “the shorter the range, the deader the Germans,” are balking) as an omen of a “messy divorce” to come. The Lance missile, the possibility of a trade war with the single economic unit that Europe will become in 1992, the threat that the wily Gorbachev will sow dissension within the Alliance by offering to take down the Berlin Wall in exchange for the “denuclearization" of Europe, the bad political weather left by Ronald Reagan’s call, in Reykjavik, for eliminating the ballistic missiles upon which the security of Europe is supposed to depend—these are some of the storms that lie just over the horizon for the Alliance. Better to get out now, Layne says, when we can by that act pry the Soviets out too. Suppose they refuse to go and we both end up staying there. In that case we will at least have wrested the high diplomatic ground from them. “The trick of statesmanship,” Layne says, “is to turn the inevitable to one’s own advantage.”

Layne is untroubled by the prospect of a reunited Germany, which, given the prevailing political dynamics, might well be a result of mutual disengagement. With an insouciance that takes one’s breath away, he has written, “The prevailing (and historically incorrect) view is that Germany caused two world wars in this century.”One hopes his prospective vision here is better than his retrospective.

For a reunited Germany is the stuff of nightmares. You can’t dig into NATO as a subject without hearing, in an aside here, a mumbled comment there, that to British and French and even some American observers, the Alliance has the purpose not just of containing Soviet power but also of separating Germany from its past. The superpower forces in Germany, seen from this perspective, are an occupation force, a multibillion-dollar lid on the restless grave of the Third Reich.

Layne is afraid that Gorbachev will disrupt the Alliance by playing the card of German reunification, but memory may stay his hand. No nation suffered more from the last German drive to achieve hegemony in Europe than the Soviet Union; the Nazis slaughtered millions of Russians. The Soviet Union’s searing experience of 1941-1945 would seem to put the German card, if it has anything more than a notional existence, squarely in the hands of the West. Should the West play it? Should it, through mutual disengagement, set in train developments that could lead to its being played? Twice in twenty years Germany upset the balance of power in Europe, bringing death to 60 million people. In the past forty years Europe, under superpower occupation, has known peace. History does not exhaust possibility. Nevertheless, history says, “Don’t play that card,”or it says nothing. Risk must be set against risk in international affairs, however, cost against cost, history against hope.

“REDUCING A HUGE MILITARY CONFRONTATION,” Jonathan Dean writes, “is a ticklish and sensitive task, something like defusing a giant bomb.”The analogy is exact: a bomb is dangerous to defuse and to ignore. Those who say that we cannot afford to defuse this one must meet an argument from history: we had 50,000 fewer men in Europe in the late sixties than we have now, and the Soviets did not invade Western Europe; nor would 50,000 more GIs back of the line have kept them from invading Czechoslovakia. No, the chief danger of war is the one that Christopher Layne has adduced: a desperate war to preserve a collapsing empire. It’s a troubling irony, but the ferment of reform in the Soviet Union makes that kind of war seem more, not less, conceivable. That is one powerful reason to seize this chance to build down the armies in Europe, if possible to reconfigure them from offense to defense, if possible to withdraw them completely. A second powerful reason starts with us, with our needs at the dawn of a new age of international economic competition. We have borne too much of the burden of Europe for too long. It’s time to put America first. □