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NATO: Rift The Worst In Years, But It's Not The First

  • Kathleen Moore

NATO is in disarray, split over how to confront Iraq. This week, the talk is all about how the alliance is in crisis. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell even says its very future is at stake. But while the row may be the worst the alliance has seen in years, it's certainly not the first.

Prague, 12 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Thousands of Europeans march for peace. NATO deployment plans are hotly debated. German loyalty to the Atlantic alliance is questioned. And the U.S. president is derided in European capitals as a tough-talking simpleton. Sound familiar?

It could describe the situation today, with NATO split over how to confront threats from Iraq and much of European public opinion against U.S. President George W. Bush's hard line against Baghdad.

But it could equally describe the early 1980s, when mass protests threatened alliance plans to deploy Pershing II and cruise missiles in Europe and put NATO credibility under threat at a critical moment in the Cold War.

It's a reminder that the current rift over Iraq is not the first to shake the alliance, though it may be the worst since that missile crisis of the '80s. Other disputes have peppered NATO's 53-year history.

Ingo Peters is executive director of the Center for Trans-Atlantic Foreign and Security Policy Studies at the Free University in Berlin. "The whole history of the alliance could be written or told as a kind of history of crises. But, of course, every crisis has been different," Peters said.

The European missile crisis erupted over the West's response to a new threat from the Soviet Union in the 1970s: SS-20 missiles stationed in Eastern Europe that were capable of striking NATO allies on the continent.

NATO's response came in 1979 with a decision to deploy new U.S. missiles in Europe over the next few years. Some would go to Britain and Italy, but most were destined for West Germany. At the same time, there would be negotiations with the Soviet Union. If the Soviets removed the SS-20s, Pershing II missiles would not be deployed in West Germany.

But public protests against the missiles soon drew thousands in Britain and, in particular, West Germany.

Peters said the West German government continued to support the missile deployment and so put itself at odds with the increasingly vocal protesters, who included some within the governing party, the SPD. "At the time, the government in Germany -- where we had this big peace movement, a high level of mobilization in society -- was still going along with the overall decision taken within NATO. So the government was cautious, but nevertheless went along with what was decided in Brussels [NATO headquarters]. But the government's room for maneuvering, freedom of action, was limited by the protests at home," Peters said.

The dispute was one of the main triggers for the ensuing government crisis that ultimately cost German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt his job.

His successor, Helmut Kohl, was steadfast in his commitment to the missile deployment, which went ahead after his election in 1983. And that, commentators say, averted a split within NATO and even helped contribute to the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

There have been other arguments over the years either involving NATO or alliance members.

In 1986, France refused overflight rights to U.S. planes on their way to bomb Libya in retaliation for the bombing of a German disco in which two U.S. servicemen died.

France also vetoed many bombing targets during NATO's air strikes against Yugoslavia in 1999, much to the United States' frustration.

But perhaps the most severe crisis came early on in the alliance's history, when France pulled out of NATO's integrated military structure, forcing the alliance's headquarters to move to Belgium.

French President Charles de Gaulle believed NATO was too much under U.S. control and wanted to assert French independence in military and nuclear affairs. Over the course of several years, de Gaulle forced the removal of NATO nuclear weapons from France and withdrew French naval forces from the alliance, and then, in 1966, de Gaulle pulled France out of NATO's integrated military command.

Bruno Tertrais is a senior research fellow at France's Foundation for Strategic Research. "De Gaulle at the time considered that, one, military integration was not justified as it was in the past, and second, that military integration was a way for the United States to maintain some degree of control over the diplomacies followed by members of the alliance," Tertrais said.

Still, even then, France remained a political member of the alliance. As Tertrais said, NATO has managed to remain united in the face of all the crises over the years. "I can't remember any crisis since the inception of the alliance in 1949 where the alliance reached a point close to breaking point. We all have a tendency to exaggerate the importance of such crises because of our inability to put things in historical terms. No country has ever withdrawn from the alliance, and no country has ever questioned the wisdom of maintaining the alliance as such as far as I can remember," Tertrais said.

Don't write those NATO obituaries just yet.

(The text of NATO's founding Washington treaty can be found at