Examining records of internal issues of the NATO in the early 1960’s exposes an array of problems plaguing a democratic system: while the U.S. was driving towards its goal of resolving East-West tensions, national and prestige interests of other members prevented a consensus that would bring about tangible results. Especially the veto power of countries with a vested interest in the status quo, such as France and the FRG, de facto paralyzed the democratic decision-making process within NATO. No wonder, then, that the U.S., the country that stood to gain the most from a settlement of the East-West antagonism - or the most to lose if it were maneuvered into a nuclear conflict - was tempted to side-step the utter ritualistic inefficiency of multi-party “consultations” within NATO and to reach out directly to the principal adversary, the Soviet Union. While Dwight Eisenhower did not dare antagonize the allies by pursuing bilateral agreements with the Soviet Union, the Kennedy administration routinely failed to consult NATO before undertaking binding steps with Moscow.
One example of how frustrating the inefficiency of NATO procedures was with regard to decision-making even in emergency situations was its response to the Berlin Wall crisis: It took NATO a full three months to agree to negotiate at all, and six months after the erection of the wall the alliance had still failed to agree on a common position, not to mention come up with any actionable solution. To be sure, it criticized the only party that had done anything at all: the U.S.’ moving of tanks up to the newly closed Berlin border. The paradox of this situation cannot be underestimated: it had been the U.S. who, with the Soviet Union, had won the war and carried the heaviest burden of the campaign against the Nazi Germany that had already conquered almost all of Europe by 1941. And yet the U.S. admitted not only Britain, but also France, a country that had hopelessly surrendered after putting up only nominal resistance to the German onslaught, into the Four Powers council that kept the lands of the Nazi aggressors occupied after what had ultimately been exclusively an Anglo-American and Russian victory. That handed inordinate power to a country that did not have much if any military or economic background to justify such standing, and Charles de Gaulle took France’s new position quite literally to extort even more far-reaching accommodations from NATO, even insisting on a tripartite directorate within the statutorily democratic structures of the North Atlantic Alliance.
Within NATO, smaller countries without much international relevance at the time, such as Greece or Turkey, suddenly also gained strategic importance and promptly exploited their newly acquired voice and significance by obstructing the initiatives of their larger partners and by siding with whoever seemed more promising to them from time to time in terms of their domestic political interests. While Christian Nuenlist in his article “Into the 1960s: NATO`s role in East–West relations, 1958–1963” in Transforming NATO in the Cold War. Challenges Beyond Deterrence in the 1960`s unabashedly criticizes de Gaulle’s obstructionism within NATO and his conspiring with the FRG to sabotage NATO policies and any European settlement, Andreas Wenger’s “NATO`s Transformation in the 1960`s and the ensuing political order in Europe” in the same volume brings up one redeeming quality of de Gaulle: the Frenchman did insist on an all-European governance of European affairs and at all times supported an early vision of a European Union. How unfeasible and, in fact, hypocritical such attempts were, is, of course, another story. At a time when Western Europe needed U.S. military assistance to deter a real or imaginary communist threat, relegating the liberator and peacekeeper of Europe to a status of a rank and file vote in NATO while expecting her to bear most of the military and economic burden must have sounded absurd enough in Washington. But to suggest running European affairs by excluding the U.S. from material decision-making was as downright incomprehensible as it was unrealistic. Sure enough, Franco-German domination of Europe must have appealed to nationalistic elements in both of these countries, but hoping that NATO members could eventually be coaxed into such an arrangement seemed like a political day dream taken the proverbial step too far. It seems that many of the Soviet-induced tensions actually helped unify the position of NATO members by compelling them to put aside assorted national ambitions that threatened to fracture NATO and, in fact, endangered its very existence.
Undated declassified NATO documents presented in the Harmel Report vividly reflect the alliance’s paralysis by pluralism: while criticizing the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc in ever harsher terms, NATO provided precious little guidance as to what actually should be done to solve the problem of persisting East-West tensions. Aside from noble and high-minded sounding propaganda, the primary documents provide not only no vision for a workable solution, but also show no road map out of the impasse: they repeat the diagnosis that “there does not exist a magic formula for overcoming the division of Germany,” but also that the allies should nevertheless solve their internal differences before attempting to engage in any talks with the Soviet Union. Consequently, these documents repudiated any East-West summit as “premature.” That and the calls for the creation of new pro-forma bodies to “study the problem” shows that, in spite of all its rhetoric, NATO was not interested in overcoming the division of Europe at all, while taking all the credit for Soviet attempts toward a rapprochement. The only concrete change reflected in the documents is a gradual move from multilateral to bilateral negotiations and relations between member countries of the two blocs. Furthermore, leaving the question of reunification of Germany to the FRG’s discretion virtually guaranteed that the matter would not be resolved, thus predictably preserving the status quo of a divided Europe, since the enduring inflexibility of the FRG’s policies in that regard was known only too well. Other new elements in the presumably later document were unsubstantiated hints at a peaceful coexistence between the two political systems.
Vojtech Mastny’s overview of “The Warsaw Pact as History” in Cardboard Castle?: An Inside History Of The Warsaw Pact, 1955-1991 enumerates analogies to the internal struggles faced by NATO: Romanian obstructionism, Albania’s expulsion from the Warsaw Pact, and eventual reforms within the pact aimed at a democratization of the organization, as well as an improved consultation procedure, reflected similar challenges and evolution within NATO. Interestingly, while during détente NATO gradually changed its priorities from military ones to the dual mandate of deterrence and détente whilst acknowledging the close interconnection between military and economic interests, the Warsaw Pact’s role that had been political at the outset turned into an increased military significance, which in consequence became important for its newly heightened political impact. Also, the Soviet Union’s initial efforts at disarmament by reducing its conventional troops and by pursuing non-aggression treaties were mirrored only partially and much later by NATO’s admission in the Harmel Report that reducing the existing excessive military potential might serve an economic purpose.
The improved consultation procedures within the Warsaw Pact took an interesting turn, as one can read in Csaba Békés’ “The History of the DEFOMIN Collection”: while at first Soviet intransigence and later Romanian obstructionism stalled until 1976 János Kádár’s proposal made in July 1963 to establish a Council of Warsaw Pact Foreign Ministers, the informal and never institutionalized meetings of deputy foreign ministers took on an active role in negotiating a common foreign policy of the Soviet Bloc and served as a forum for the flow of information within that bloc. The efficiency of such ad hoc solutions proved that practical considerations often overruled policy based on the official party line and, without endangering the public posture of the Soviet Union as the official voice of the Eastern Bloc, provided for nascent democratization of the decision-making process and an increasing individual role accorded to the countries of Eastern Europe.
This trend was ultimately reflected in the Warsaw Pact Summit of January 7, 1970 that dealt with the response to the election of Willy Brandt as chancellor of the FRG. At the summit, various countries of the Soviet Bloc presented opinions that were certainly not unified and reflected mostly domestic interests, while Brezhnev’s comments tried to interpret them in the framework of official Communist policy. Still, and despite paying lip service to ideology, it seemed that the economic considerations of foreign trade proved to be the most important and ultimately decisive factors for the East Bloc’s opening towards the FRG’s Ostpolitik over the protests of the GDR that continued to worry about the continuing uncertainty of its status.