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.
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.
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 now what the Soviets were afraid of. When World War II came to them, they had no allies. Their one ally, Germany, was the one that betrayed them. The Soviets were both taken by surprise and fought alone until the Americans and British chose to help them. The Soviets had played complex diplomacy with traditional alliances, and when it failed the Soviet Union committed itself to never again depending on others. It had the Warsaw Pact because the West had NATO, but it did not depend on its allies. The Americans threw themselves into alliances as if an alliance solved all problems. The Soviets, however, acted as if allies were the most dangerous things of all.
In the end, when we look back on it, war was much less likely than we felt. The West was not going to invade the East. On the defensive, the Soviets would have annihilated our much smaller force. And, truth be told, no one had the slightest interest in conquering Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union.
As for the Soviets, on paper they were an overwhelming force, but paper is a bad place to think about war. The Soviets did not want a nuclear exchange, and in their view the United States was itching to have one. They knew if they moved westward there would be an exchange. Plus, it turned out, the Soviets would have a great deal of trouble keeping their tanks fueled as they moved to the west. They had a plan for laying plastic pipes from their fuel depots and rolling them out as the tanks advanced. The problem was that the pipes never worked very well, and their fuel depots were slated for annihilation by airstrikes, possibly the day before the war began officially.
All of this is past and I recollect it with a combination of pride — not for what I did, which was little, but for simply being there — and chagrin about how little we understood the enemy. Both sides were ready for war. Both sides were expecting actions that the other side had no intentions of undertaking. But all of the plans that we created were, in the end, irrelevant. The only way to win the game — as the movie War Games said — was not to play it. Not surprisingly, the leaders — Eisenhower and Khrushchev, Nixon and Brezhnev, Reagan and Gorbachev — knew it better than the experts. It has always struck me as the world’s great fortune that the two great superpowers were the United States and the Soviet Union, who managed the Cold War with meticulous care in retrospect. Imagine the European diplomats of 1914 or 1938 armed with nuclear weapons. It is easy to believe they would not have been as cautious.
NATO’s Legacy and Disarray
What NATO provided that was priceless, and the unexpected byproduct of all of this, was a comradeship and unity of purpose on both sides of the North Atlantic. Even the French, who withdrew from NATO’s military command under Charles de Gaulle, remained unofficially part of it. There was little question but that if “the balloon went up” — the enemy took action — the French would be there, arguing over who would command whom but fighting as hard as the Underground did before D-Day. But through NATO, I got to know Germans at a time when knowing Germans was not easy for me because of what my family went through during the war. I was forced to distinguish Germany from Franz who could play the ukulele.
I had a son in 1976. When I went to Europe, I met an Italian and we became friends. We would talk about what we would tell our families to do if the balloon went up. The conversation — strange and perhaps pathological as it was — bound us together. It was not war, it was not peace, but it was a place in the mind where the preparation for war and the anxiety that it generated created strange forms, such as plans for the movement of children in order to avoid a nuclear holocaust.
NATO, far more than a model United Nations or a Fulbright, allowed ordinary Americans and Europeans to know each other and understand that with linked fates, they were comrades in arms. After World War II, that was a profound lesson. Millions of draftees experienced that and took the lesson home.
The end of the Cold War is no great loss, although my youth went with it. Losing the unity of purpose that the Cold War gave Western Europe and the United States is of enormous consequence. For a while, after 1991, the two sides went on as if the alliance could exist even without an enemy. However, NATO started to fragment when it lost its enemy. The passion for a mission gave NATO meaning, and the passion was drained. The alliance continued to fragment when the United States decided to invade Iraq for the second time. The vast majority of countries in NATO supported the invasion — a forgotten fact — but France and Germany did not. This damaged the United States’ relations with Europe, particularly with the French, who have a way of getting under the skins of Americans while appearing oblivious to it. But the greater damage was within Europe — the division between those who wanted to maintain close relations with the United States, even if they thought the Iraq War was a bad idea, and those who wanted Europe to have its own voice, distinct from the Americans’.
The 2008 global financial contagion did not divide the Americans and Europeans nearly as much as it divided Europe. The relationship between European countries — less among leaders than among publics — has become poisonous. Something terrible has happened to Europe, and each country is holding someone else responsible. As many countries are blaming Germany as Germany is blaming for the crisis.
There can be no trans-Atlantic alliance when one side is in profound disagreement with itself over many things and the other side has no desire to be drawn into the dispute. Nor can there be a military alliance where there is no understanding of the mission, the enemy or obligations. NATO was successful during the Cold War because the enemy was clear, there was consensus over what to do in each particular circumstance and participation was a given. An alliance that does not know its mission, has no meaningful plans for what problems it faces and stages come-as-you-are parties in Libya or Mali, where invitations are sent out and no one RSVPs, cannot be considered an alliance. The committees meet and staffs of defense ministers prepare for conferences — all of the niceties of an alliance remain. SACEUR is still an American, the Science and Technology Committee produces papers, but in the end, the commonality of purpose is gone.
My European colleagues and I were young, serious and dedicated. These are all dangerous things because we lacked historical perspective (but then, so did many of our elders). What we had together, however, was invaluable: a moment in history, possibly the last, when the West stood shoulder to shoulder in defense of liberal democracy and against tyranny. Still, I look back on the Soviets and then look at al Qaeda and I miss the Soviets. I understood them in a way I can never understand al Qaeda.
So I will be asked to speak about U.S-European relations. I will have to tell the Europeans two things. The first is that there is no American relationship with Europe because Europe is no longer an idea but a continent made up of states with diverse interests. There are U.S.-French relations and U.S.-Russian relations and so on. The second thing I will tell them is that there can be no confederation without a common foreign and defense policy. You can have different tax rates, but if when one goes to war they don’t all go to war, they are just nations cooperating as they see fit.
I remember the camaraderie of young enlisted Americans and Europeans, and the solidarity of planning teams. This was the glue that held Europe together. It was not just the commanders and politicians, but the men who would have to cover each other’s movement that created the foundations of NATO’s solidarity. My recollections are undoubtedly colored with sentimentality, but I do not think I’ve done the idea an injustice. NATO bound Europe together because it made the nations into comrades. They were able to face Armageddon together. Europe without NATO’s solidarity has difficulty figuring out a tax policy. In the end, Europe lost more when NATO fell into disuse than it imagined.
I don’t know that NATO can exist without a Cold War. Probably not. What is gone is gone. But I know my nostalgia for Europe is not just for my youth; it is for a time when Western civilization was united. I doubt we will see that again.
“Geopolitical Journey: Nostalgia for NATO is republished with permission of Stratfor.”