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The Ditchley Foundation Annual Lecture XII

21 September 1973
Europe and the Americans
delivered by:
Dr Joseph Luns, GCMG, CH.  Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, Minister of Foreign Affairs, The Netherlands (1952-1971)
I am very grateful and rather flattered to have been invited to address you today.

When your able Director, my old friend, Sir Michael Stewart, discussed with me the subject matter of my address, we thought that to speak about “Europe and the Americans” would be timely and interesting. Timely, because the so important relationship between the United States of America and Western Europe in and outside the Atlantic Alliance is nowadays under discussion by Governments, politicians and opinion-makers on both sides of the Atlantic. Interesting, because so much depends on the state of the relationship between the Europeans and the Americans.

Now, pondering how to tackle my subject, I decided that I would not delve deeply into the many fascinating aspects of the similarities and differences between the Americans, including to some degree the Canadians, although you cannot consider these two nations as having the same characteristics, and the peoples of Western and the Southern part of Europe. In my case I thought it would be better to concentrate my analysis on some basic concerns of the North Atlantic Alliance at the present moment. In other words, my remarks will be in keeping with the approach which is my special responsibility: a political approach.

I will be the first to admit that the general theme of “Europe and the Americans” is perhaps a more interesting one and provides for a deeper, more philosophical and less specialised approach. But apart from the fact that I am not quite qualified to make such a study, my interests have by necessity during the last 37 years (14 years as a professional diplomat, 19 years as Foreign Secretary of the Netherlands and two years as Secretary General of NATO) been nearly wholly focussed on political issues.

However, before going into the present state of the Atlantic relations, I want you to know that I am fully aware of the immense importance of the similarities and differences in outlook, traditions, background and aspirations between the American people as a whole and the Europeans. It was my privilege during more than three years to live in the United States just before starting my political career and since then, which means since 1952, I have been for short or somewhat longer periods 68 times in America. 1, therefore, was able personally to get, as the saying goes, the “feel” of that huge country and I have often been struck by the great differences between, on the one part, my country of origin, Holland, and quite a few countries I know rather well in Europe, like Belgium, France, Switzerland, Germany, Portugal and the United Kingdom and, on the other, their cousins in the States. Furthermore, while, on the whole, Europeans take rather pride in the fact that they populated—the real word is colonised but I avoid it as it is rather unpopular nowadays—the North American continent, the Americans as a whole tend either to forget it or simply resent it. This is to my mind due, at least partially, to the fact that the great majority of Americans descend from Europeans who left the old continent for various reasons but nearly all rather unpleasant ones. Quite a few went to America in order to seek religious liberty, the majority emigrated because of economic necessity and others came because of political persecution. Only a few decided to settle in America because of the fascination exercised by a new and, so to speak, virgin country or because the spirit of adventure drove them out of the old country. Their descendants tend, therefore, to look upon Europe with an inherited distrust and aversion of old established institutions like monarchies, nobility or old and, in their eyes, quaint national traditions. Furthermore, they profess to consider Europeans as being more cynical and less generous and trusting than they like to think themselves. All this has of course some impact on the political outlook but I believe that that outlook is even more influenced by the great reluctance of the American people fully to assume and enjoy the leadership of the free world which their immense wealth, geography and economic and military possibilities have laid upon them. The average American, politician, intellectual, lawmaker and even Government official would prefer the United States to stay aloof from world affairs while taking advantage of the opportunities which trade and commerce offer them on a world scale. I do not mean what I have just said in a degrading way. On the contrary, 1 consider these traits as being an indication of a rather generous state of mind which favourably contrasts with what most European nations have manifested during these last centuries and of which the meglomania, lust of power and incredible cruelty of a Hitler is the most extreme manifestation. Let me cite one example of this American quality.

As indicated before, nations as well as individuals enjoy possession of power and are inclined to take advantage of it. Superficial knowledge of history learns that countries with great power do exercise that power for their own ends. They furthermore like this state of affairs. I am sure you will not contradict me when I remind my English listeners that during the many years of the English preponderance the British people as a whole did carry the burdens of Empire with zest and pride. The same can be said of the France of Louis XIV and of Napoleon, while you will doubtlessly believe me when I state that the Netherlands very much liked and enjoyed their position when during a short—personally I would have liked it longer—period in history they were one of the great naval powers and succeeded in becoming masters of a vast empire situated in America, Africa and the Far East. I know of one complete exception to this general rule: America. During the years of their nuclear monopoly she was not only possessed of great power, she was all powerful and could literally have dominated the whole world. The Soviet Union and China included. But it is also a fact that the United States during those years not only did not use the threat of this frightful weapon in their dealings with their potential adversaries, it never even hinted at it and besides felt rather ashamed to possess this immense and irresistible power.

If I were to elaborate longer on other aspects of the nature of the American nation compared to those of Europe, I would not have time enough to go into my political consideration and therefore you will allow me now to turn to the real subject of my address, which as I have said is the present state of our Atlantic relations.

In order to put my remarks in perspective, I would like to make first some more general observations.

First, I would like to put to you three propositions which I do not propose to argue, but which are basic to my thinking.

The first is that we should never take freedom and independence for granted: nor should we take peace for granted. None of these conditions is necessarily a natural state of man. History suggests quite the opposite. They have to be worked for: and even fought for. And when they have been won they have to be protected and defended. Those who have lived most, or all their lives, in freedom may sometimes need to remind themselves of this. So also may generations in the West who have not known what it is to have their country invaded or attacked.

My second proposition is that for the countries of the North Atlantic area, and indeed for some others too, the chief threat to their freedom and independence, and to their peace, continues to reside in the incompatibility of their philosophy and way of life with the beliefs and dogma which motivate the leaders of the Soviet Union and of the communist countries of Eastern Europe, and which, in their eyes, justify all that they do. I think we have to be clear and frank about this. A great deal is being done at the present time, through negotiations and discussions of all kinds, both multilateral and bilateral, to seek solutions to some particular East/West problems, to achieve broader understanding in certain areas and, most especially, to reduce the risks of open conflict. This is extremely valuable and important, but some hard facts nonetheless remain: we do not accept Soviet domination of Eastern Europe; we do not forget the Hungarian uprising or Czechoslovakia and how they were dealt with; we do not condone how the Soviet Union treats some sections of its own population; we do not understand why the Soviet people are forced to go on carrying an almost intolerable burden of military expenditure to maintain a continued expansion of Soviet military power far beyond anything that could possibly be required for self defence; we fear the evidence we see of a new great-power imperialism. It is in these issues, on which we cannot agree or understand one another, that the dangers lie. When discussion so much as approaches them, as, for example, it has done and will do in the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) negotiations on freedom of movement and freedom for the exchange of ideas, then it quickly becomes plain how very sensitive they are, and how easily any attempt to progress in this area can itself become a cause of tension.

My third proposition is that, in a situation which is still perilous— I make no apology for the word—it is, to say the least, prudent for the peoples of Western Europe and North America to seek to combine and act together. This is not to exclude others. It is merely to say that if our peaceful enjoyment of our freedom and independence is important to us, then it is for us, first and foremost, to act for ourselves to safeguard what we value, and to go on doing so for as long as may be necessary. And this may mean for so long as the continent of Europe is subjected to its present unnatural division.

Those then are the premises from which I start. Despite any impression to the contrary, I do not consider that I take a gloomy view. All I am saying is that we have had to learn to live with a certain situation which, while we hope it will slowly evolve in a favourable fashion, is not going to change fundamentally for a long time yet. My fear is, however that as democratic societies, we may be poorly equipped for the consequent long haul which may be demanded of us. For I believe that it is in the nature of our democratic way of thinking to take an optimistic view of the motives and actions of others. This perhaps goes back, in essence, to our liberal conviction of the perfectibility of man. We are also inclined to believe in the inevitability of progress in the sense of continuing improvement in our general well being. We expect to grow richer and more secure. We see the scope for such progress as almost infinite, though in some fields, for example the sheer accumulation of material wealth, doubts are finally beginning to be voiced in some quarters within the richer countries of the world as to just how far the process can go without becoming self-defeating. And I hope I will be pardoned if I remark that this latter tendency to take progress for granted, and accordingly constantly to look for it and demand it a tout prix, is greatly encouraged by the sometimes extravagant promises of political parties in democratic countries in their competition for electoral support. Then again, traditional and fundamental to our democratic way of thinking, is the spirit of criticism and questioning, and seldom has this been so in evidence as it is today. Sometimes it almost seems sufficient for our governments to announce a particular course of action for a strong body of opinion at once to spring up to argue that it is folly. All these tendencies are reflected in the mass of political comment which we read daily in newspapers and journals and other writings, and to which we listen on radio and television programmes. And while this comment reflects current thought, so, at the same time, it helps to form it and deserves to popularise it.

I do not quarrel with any of this; it is all part of our way of life. But it follows from it that persevering in burdensome policies is not easy for democratic societies, and it is no good pretending that to continue to provide for our security against possible external interference and pressures is not a burden. It is, and always will be costly in terms of national resources, and may also, from time to time, be a cause of social strains and stresses which we would much rather avoid. So if, as we hope, the present period of increasing East/West contact continues, we shall, by our optimism, be more and more tempted to believe that the Soviet and East European political leaders broadly share the same hopes and ambitions that we cherish, and that our systems are not really so different after all. In our negotiations we shall risk mistaking the appearance for the reality; we shall be in danger of falling victim to wishful thinking. Already we have heard the “convergence” theory advanced, which suggests that, with growing State involvement in capitalist economic systems and the wider application of capitalist costing and managerial practices in communist systems, the two are drawing closer together and, it is implied, will eventually one day meet somewhere in the middle. This is at a time when, if there is any such convergence movement at all, which may be doubted, it is so minimal, relative to the yawning gulf which separates capitalism from communism, as to be barely perceptible. Our confidence in progress will lead us to suppose that because we have succeeded in avoiding conflict we really have finally put the danger of war behind us once and for all; détente will be equated with lasting peace. Above all there will be a swelling volume of questioning and criticism of the political judgements and the strategy on which our defence policies are based. Surely, it will be said, the old objectives of territorial expansion and political domination, and readiness to achieve them by force, are things of the past. Others will argue that, even if this is not so, it is better to rely exclusively on the nuclear deterrent and that conventional forces can be dispensed with. And some may favour neutralism, either genuinely believing that it is in that direction that their true security lies, or simply hoping that. if the need arises, others will protect them at no cost to themselves.

It is at this point that I wish to turn to the question of Atlantic relations. For I believe that our success in managing these relations will determine to a very large extent how successful we are in sustaining viable defence policies in face of the kinds of growing pressures I have described.

The history of relations between North America and Western Europe has been one of a steadily, but reluctantly growing recognition of the whole multiplicity of facts and circumstances which inescapably bind together the two areas and the peoples who inhabit them. North America is in origin a daughter of Europe; her people are essentially of European stock; her languages are European. But from the moment the Colonies fought for and won their independence, it was a main purpose of the United States to separate herself as far as possible from Europe, and from European affairs, and European troubles. The United States never seriously sought influence or empire beyond the bounds of her own continent. She did not need to; between the Atlantic and Pacific there was a vast empty empire waiting to be conquered at home. Nor, until this century, was the United States under any strong compulsion to involve herself in wider world affairs to safeguard her national interests. Surrounded by oceans ruled by the British navy, she enjoyed an enviable, almost effortless security. It was not until 1917 that she found that she could no longer remain largely indifferent to events in Europe. Between the wars earlier fashions of thought once more gained some ascendancy, but the Second World War, the rise of the power of the Soviet Union, the shrinking of the globe, and the development of long-range weapons of mass destruction finally made the lesson clear. North America was no more, in a phrase of Winston Churchill, the “unattackable continent.”

The Western European attitude towards North America has undergone a similar transformation. In the nineteenth century age of Empire, the great powers of Europe felt little need to have regard for the United States. The settling of the world order was for them, and they did not doubt their capacity for the task. So just as 1917 was a turning point for the United States in her relations with Western Europe, so also it was for the countries of Western Europe in their approach to the United States. Indeed, looking back from where we now stand, it seems almost incredible that the German Government could then have failed, as they clearly did, to comprehend what was involved in their bringing America into the war against them, bearing in mind that already the United States was a highly advanced country, by the standards of the times, immensely rich in resources, and with a population of no less than one hundred and twenty million. It is only explicable if one bears in mind the extent to which the nineteenth century world, which vanished with the 1914/1918 war, had been dominated by the European powers. After 1918, just as the United States sought to shrink back once again into her continent, so the European countries, with the exception of Russia, traumatised by revolution, tried to rebuild the old order, and, as we know, with equally little success. Once more the United States was drawn back into a European conflict, and into final recognition, perhaps best exemplified by her part in the establishment of the United Nations, that she had no option but to accept an international role commensurate with her huge wealth and power.

So, finally on both sides of the Atlantic, we have come to recognise and accept the true extent to which our destinies are linked; how inescapably we are bound together. But while we have learnt the lesson, nonetheless there continues to be a surprising degree of nostalgic harking back to other days and ages. In Western Europe it is not hard to detect, in places, regret that Europe no longer enjoys the role it played in the 19th century and, unfortunately, a kind of resentment at what some see as a dependence upon the United States. Proper ambitions for greater Western European unity and a more effective voice for Western Europe in international councils are sometimes tinged with an anti- Americanism which it is simply no use trying to ignore. Equally, across the Atlantic, ideas and attitudes inherited from the past can be detected easily enough. Thus in the immediate post-war period, American policies towards the dissolution of Empire were most strongly influenced by American historical experience. More recent events have brought significant changes. But sentiment against external involvement is still very strong; and in some areas, for reasons which we well know, even stronger than ever. There is a clearly identifiable longing, however unrealistic, for a return to the days of the “unattackable continent.” Tt may be remarked that this phenomenon is by no means peculiar to the United States of today. Nineteenth century British and French Governments frequently faced similar opposition to the world-wide endeavours, or some might say adventures, in which they engaged their countries. Perhaps the plain fact is that, in all our countries, people on the whole are principally interested in leading their own quiet, useful lives concerned with their personal affairs which do not touch upon and which, they hope, will not be much touched upon by events in the world outside. Though I think we are all having to recognise, in the case of the problems of inflation, for example, that this hope is likely to prove increasingly vain.

The conclusion which I draw is that if we are to succeed in our Atlantic relations we have to understand these sentiments. We must not be shocked by them; we must not allow them to become a cause of misunderstanding between us. This will demand constant effort. Domestically we must strive to bring home again and again the reality of North American/Western European interdependence, and that those who believe that this can be changed are living in a dream world. In our international relations, we must ensure that where our interests conflict —as certainly they sometimes do and will—then we move promptly and effectively to deal with the resulting problems.

I do not propose to speak at length today of the very serious monetary and economic questions which confront us at the present time. But I think I should say this. While these matters are not directly within the competence of the North Atlantic Alliance, they do bear closely upon the attitudes of the individual members towards their defence and security commitments. Everyone accepts that there is such an interaction. Moreover, there is one aspect, namely that of sharing the burden of the cost of our common security, including the question of the U.S. military presence in Europe, which is a direct responsibility of the Alliance. It is therefore of very great importance to the Alliance that acceptable solutions should be found to these problems and that continuing disagreement is not allowed to affect adversely relations in the vital area of defence and security. I am accordingly greatly encouraged by the promising start which appears to have been made at the recent meeting of the Committee of Twenty in Washington, and I trust that this will lead to further progress. I am encouraged too that within the Alliance, we are to discuss the particular problem posed by the stationing of U.S. forces in Europe. For while these forces are here for the common defence of the North Atlantic area, including the United States, and while their presence is regarded as essential by the U.S. administration, we cannot afford just to ignore the strong current of opinion in the United States in favour of troop reductions. These issues must be faced and dealt with.

But at least equally important is that Western Europe and North America should go on understanding one another about East/West relations. Because it is in this area that the kind of sentiments I have described are liable to have their most powerful and damaging effect. European sensibility stemming from recollections, real or imaginary, of past glories, and regrets for lost status increase suspicions and resentment at any slightest indication of the United States and the Soviet Union reaching decisions over the heads of the Western European countries. In America, longing for relief from international burdens and responsibilities and for a return to earlier and simpler times makes tempting the mirage of some kind of super-power accord which might make withdrawaj possible. Maintaining the necessary understanding is not, therefore, going to be simple in a period in which East/West relations may be more fluid than they have ever been since the division of Europe came into being at the end of the War. Nor should we forget that it is a prime aim of the Soviet Union and her allies to drive wedges between the Atlantic partners.

There is no way that I know that we can avoid the dangers of this situation other than through the most thorough and continuous consultation, and this, as I see it, will continue to be a vital task of the Alliance in the months (and if my initial analysis is correct) years ahead. In the CSCE, which has just begun its second phase in Geneva, we must fully maintain the high degree of agreement and co-operation achieved in Helsinki. In the Vienna talks on mutual and balanced force reductions, it is perhaps even more important that the Allied Governments should negotiate in complete confidence that they are in accord, both on basic positions and on the tactics to be adopted in the discussions. There must too be similar confidence that full regard will be had for the security of all the Allied countries in the bilateral discussions between the United States and the USSR on the limitation of strategic arms and, more generally, whenever exchanges between the superpowers—or indeed between any member of the Alliance and the other side—may touch on, or appear to touch on the interests of the other members.

But it may be that, at the particular point at which we now stand, both in East/West and West/West relations—a point which could prove to be critical for us all—something more than this is required:

something which goes beyond exchanges and consultations between Governments, and reaches a wider public in the North Atlantic countries, so that the understanding which is so necessary becomes, so far as this is possible, an understanding not only of Governments but of peoples. The North Atlantic Treaty has stood the test of time. It is as valid today as when it was drafted. But I think it is greatly to be welcomed that, within the Alliance, we have decided to examine again our relationships, in light of the many changes which have taken place in the world around us, and I personally would very much hope that we may in due course arrive at a restatement of our aims and purposes, and a rededication to our goals.
I have taken as my starting point in this talk that we are by no means yet out of the wood. “The world will hold perils for as far ahead as we can see.” These are not my words, they are taken from President Nixon’s report to Congress of May 3 this year on U.S. Foreign Policy for the 1970s. In my view, the most serious peril for the North Atlantic countries remains the fundamental incompatibility between what we, on the one hand, see as the way society should be organised, and the communist system on the other. Despite progress in resolving some issues, this incompatibility remains essentially untouched. There is also the danger of what I called the evidence of great-power imperialism on the part of the Soviet Union. In this situation, we must at all costs maintain the solidarity of the Atlantic partnership, and, within and through that partnership, we must continue to shoulder the burden of providing for our security. Our democratic societies will not find this easy. We shall be urged to relax long before it is safe to do so. Attitudes derived from the past will tend to trouble our Atlantic partnership. I believe, however, that we shall not succumb to these temptations providing that there is sufficiently wide public understanding of the realities of the world in which we live, and of the continued effort which is called for. It must be a first duty and concern of all our Governments to ensure that there is that essential understanding.