"If the Europeans don't want it, then the hell with it."
With those words, scrawled in the margin of a staff memorandum in 1963, an exasperated President John F. Kennedy put an end to his administration's interest in a famous (some would say infamous) proposal. It was to create a flotilla of surface ships manned by mixed crews drawn from members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and armed with Polaris nuclear missiles furnished by the United States.
The concept of this multilateral nuclear force (MLF) was a trifle fanciful -- and the military feasbility highly questionable. But the purpose had some sense to it, at a time when the French and British each had their own independent and unpersuasive nuclear capabilities, the West Germans had big doubts about the reliability of the American nuclear umbrella and nobody wanted nuclear weapons in German hands.
The purpose was to entice the Europeans into a carefully controlled multinational nuclear armada, partly in the interest of nuclear non-proliferation and partly in furtherance of a more equal partnership between Europe and the United States in their joint defense. Off in the future, there was even the vision of an evolving, supernational European entity -- the Europe of Jean Monnet. This Europe would move beyond the European Economic Community to collective cooperative independent action on all matters of common concern, free at last of its uncomfortable reliance on the overhearing Americans.
But "the Europeans didn't want it," as President Lyndon Johnson was also to conclude a year later when he killed off the MLF for good -- and, with it, the last serious effort by the United States and the Europeans to restructure their Alliance relationships.
Since then, obviously, some things have changed. The western European nations have grown to be, collectively, the economic equal of the United States. The United States has lost its strategic nuclear edge over the Soviet Union and lags are behind in conventional military terms. The Common Market is bigger and more active -- even capable of mounting a common diplomatic initiative in the Mideast, however dubious its prospects may be.
But what strikes you most forcibly on a visit to this great center of Western thought and opinion is how much, since the Kennedy/Johnson era, some things have stayed the same.
The Europeans, for all their wealth and all their insistence on a bigger voice in the Atlantic Alliance and greater recognition as a force in world affairs, are no more capable of providing for their own defense than they were 16 years ago. They are no less dependent on American strategic power -- and no less suspicious of its reliability. They depend no less on the presence of 300,000 American troops on their soil -- and are no less resentful of this necessity.
Monnet's Europe is more than ever a distant dream. Even the Common Market is torn by sharp conflicts of interest; the British are deeply divided about the wisdom of ever having entered it. The Europeans have no shared perception of the Soviet threat, and still less a shared view of how to deal with it.
What the Europeans do share is a growing dependence on trade with the European Communist bloc and a powerful desire to have nothing interfere with their own East-West detente. While continuing to bear fare less than their fair portion of NATO's burdens, they also continue to count on the United States to stave off, in some tension-free fashion, a Soviet threat not just to European but to persian Gulf oil resources. This oil, while valuable to Americans, is for Europeans a matter of economic life or death.
Meantime, the British have been debating whether to upgrade their nuclear force with the purchase (from the United States) of Trident I missiles and the construction of at least four new submarines to carry them. The French have proudly revealed the development of their own neutron bomb.The West Germans are moving toward closer connections with East Germany and warmer relations with the Soviet Union -- while urging Americans to reinstate the draft and rearm so as to strike a better balance with the Soviets.
All of this is worth keeping firmly in mind while listening to Europeans lay out their threadbare bill of particulars against the United States as a waning world power -- erratic, inconstant, inept, self-absorbed; against Jimmy Carter as bumbling, unconfiding, overly moralistic, weak, inconsistent and all the rest; against Ronald Reagan as an unworthy, even ludicrous, alternative.
You may even agree with all, or part, of the indictment. And you certainly couldn't argue with the Europeans' bottom-line conclusion that the Western Alliance is in dangerous disarray. But you can't help noticing how conveniently the Europeans forget to count in their own considerable contribution to this unhappy bottom line.