George Ignatieff's harried life on THE BRINK OF CRISIS
Third of a series: OUR MAN IN NATO
"There have been moments," he confesses, “when I really bega o believe the big one was about to break.” Here, through the eyes of our NATO delegate, is a rare glimpse inside the council chambe of the "uneasy alliance" that is keeping us-often uneasily-out of World War III
FOR GEORGE IGNATIEFF, Canadian ambassador to NATO, the call that came during a dinner party at his official residence here was no surprise. He had been brooding for several days on the mounting evidence, in conversations with NATO colleagues and in cables from Ottawa, of a rapidly developing crisis between the United States and Russia.
That afternoon at NATO headquarters there had been a chilling sense of an impending collision, of a showdown that might prove to be the decisive test of strength between the two most powerful nations on earth. Other crises he remembered had been provoked by Soviet moves in Europe; at issue this time was Soviet arming of Cuba with nuclear missiles.
Ignatieff took the call alone in his study. It proved to be a curt summons to an emergency meeting of the North Atlantic Council, highest political authority in NATO. The United States, he was told, had issued its ultimatum to Russia, and the council would remain in session until the crisis was settled — one way or another.
He made his excuses to his wife, Alison, and his guests, assuring them that the business he had to deal with was not a pretext for sneaking off to a nightclub. Then, still in dinner jacket, he drove to NATO headquarters overlooking the Bois de Boulogne, at the lower end of the wide tree-lined Avenue Maréchal Foch. He was met by members of his staff who accompanied him as he crossed through the secretary-general’s office, opened a side
door and entered the political nerve centre of NATO.
This was the crisis room, reserved for emergencies when NATO is placed on the highest alert, when nearly a million men manning a five-thousand-mile front extending from Norway to the Iran-Iraq border are poised for battle.
The secretary-general, a field officer representing the supreme allied commander, and other ambassadors were already there, linked by telephone and teleprinter to military headquarters near Vaucresson, outside Paris, and to member governments.
The Cuban missile crisis was fifteen minutes old. Washington had delivered its ultimatum to, Moscow; Moscow could back down, pull the nuclear trigger for all-out war, or attempt to scare the West by rolling its monolithic army across the front line into Western Europe.
F^r the next eight days Ignatieff left the crisis room only at short intervals for private discussion by telephone with Ottawa from his office downstairs, for a change of clothes and a hot meal, for occasional spells of sleep. For the rest of the time he sat in his shirtsleeves with other ambassadors, senior military officers, and political staffs, receiving reports of Soviet troop movements, evaluating their implications, assessing information streaming in from intelligence and diplomatic sources behind the ‘Iron Curtain, informing Ottawa of SHAPE’S (Supreme Headquarters, Allied Powers, Europe) hourly appreciations of Com-
munist intentions and of the measures required to check them, and sometimes adjourning briefly with one or more ambassadors for private appraisals of possible military action in Europe.
Strangely, the tense expectancy that gripped world capitals was not reflected in the smokefilled atmosphere of the crisis room. There, where Allied representatives come together at times of supreme stress in such conflicting conditions, the very intimacy of the room precludes friction and calms anxieties.
“You can hardly get up to lecture someone or make a defiant declaration of national policy in what amounts to an informal backroom conference among friends,” Ignatieff told me recently. “We are all there because our countries are in danger, and because we have a fundamental job to do — defend them as best we can.
“When you have sat beside someone, not just for hours, but for days or sometimes weeks, with your feet up on the table and jackets off, drinking innumerable cups of coffee, then parliamentary attitudes become pretty remote and senseless. There’s greater tolerance of the other fellow’s difficulties during an emergency session in the crisis room than at any other time.”
By that critical October, 1962, the tall, professional fifty-two-year-old Ignatieff was already a veteran of NATO crises, the longest and most dangerous of which was the Berlin crisis which began at the end of 1961 and lasted for eight months. That time, he was called from his home on Christmas Eve and virtually lived in the crisis room for the next three weeks while the Soviet Union probed and tested the strength and determination of the Allies, and NATO responded with escalating force.
“There were moments when I really began to believe that the big one, the big war, was about to break,” he said. “The Russians and East Germans closed the autobahns through East Germany, buzzed the air corridor to West Berlin, and threatened to shoot down commercial planes attempting to use it. They mounted dangerous troop movements on their side of the line, reinforcing the six-hundred-mile central NATO front with armored divisions and rocket units.
“They made a lot of noise, all of it angry, and all of it guaranteed to inspire us with the certainty that this was their showdown with the West at long last. If
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The plan: to make the Reds think we were keen on a test of strength
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we had gone off half-cocked the ensuing war would have been fought when they were ready, on their terms. Yet we had to react as if we were ready, willing, even keen on a test of military strength.
“The Allied commander in Berlin was authorized to respond in graduated stages as the pressures on his forces increased. He did so, brilliantly. While we waited, watched and listened in the crisis room, traffic to West Berlin was organized into convoys, given armored escorts, and punched through to the city.”
“NATO armored columns deployed through the streets of West Berlin and lined up on our side of the Wall, their guns pointed at it, as if ready to blast it down and crash through into Communist territory. Our fighters went up to patrol the air corridors, buzzing the buzzers, challenging the Communists to open fire. Our intelligence
led the Russians to believe that NATO’s tactical nuclear missiles were aimed and armed, that the council was actually in secret session with a finger on the nuclear trigger.
“The Russians gave up after three weeks. We had responded effectively, but not without some cost. One or two of our aircraft were missing (mostly by mishap), and the lives sacrificed were all American. We shouldn’t forget that. I can’t.”
Crises like these make the NATO job one of the most critical and sensitive in the Canadian foreign service. Of all the international danger spots in which Canada has undertaken obligations of its own accord, or into which it has been thrust by events, NATO is the most complex, the most pregnant with global consequences.
As the permanent Canadian member of the NATO Council, Ignatieff has a share in the control of half a million troops, some five hundred warships drawn from eight navies, about five thousand aircraft, and a vast collection of assorted nuclear missiles, which although called tactical, could devastate Communist territory up to a range of about four hundred miles.
If, despite all the controls and East-West understandings, a future crisis should reach the critical point of a possible nuclear exchange, Ignatieff would be Canada’s finger on the safety catch, immovable until the cabinet in Ottawa ordered otherwise.
Contest for leadership
NATO is at once a shield for Western civilization and a lance that deters outright Communist aggression. Yet because its primary function is the prevention of war, and the major Allies seem to be unable to agree on how this can be best achieved, NATO is an uneasy alliance, plagued by differences, by resurgent and competitive nationalisms, and by jealousies which in any other context might be considered petty.
The twin emotions of pride and prejudice rear up particularly in relations between France and the United States who have been quarreling on the question of NATO leadership for six years. This poses special problems for whoever may be Canadian ambassador to NATO because of his country’s historic connections with one and geographic connections with the other.
George Ignatieff, one of the most crisis-hardened diplomats in the alliance, having been our man at NATO for the last four years, treads this ground confidently. He is as popular at the Quai d’Orsay (the French foreign office) as he is respected by the American delegation to NATO. He sometimes finds himself in the unenviable position of having to interpret the motives of one to the other, “and as they are still fairly far apart I don’t seem to have had much success.”
One of the causes of the FrancoAmerican split is France’s decision to build its own nuclear deterrent force — its now famous force de frappe.
This tends to have a disruptive effect on allied strategic planning.
“Our whole purpose here is to prevent war,” Ignatieff said. “We have Anglo-American strategic deterrent forces to shelter our development in the conventional field. In terms of East-West balance we are in good shape. The problem is to protect the balance of nuclear terror against accidental upsets. We do that by several forms of control. First, although we have nuclear missiles, their warheads are in American custody. NATO countries can't fire any sort of nuclear weapon until the warhead has been released by decision of the White House.
“Another form of control is the tacit understanding between the Soviet Union and the United States that as another Cuban confrontation is too risky to contemplate, each should avoid provoking the other to the point where a nuclear exchange is seriously considered. The Washington-Moscow hot line is there to make sure that in any critical situation reassurances can be exchanged instantaneously.”
He points out that at present these controls are not enough, that the security of the nuclear balance is not foolproof. It is insecure because there are two nuclear powers that are not governed by controls: France
and Red China are unfettered by any arrangements reached between Britain, the United States and Russia or within the NATO structure.
As long as France refuses to integrate its force de frappe with the Anglo - American deterrent, Russia can never be sure that reassurances from Washington are reliable. And NATO itself can never guarantee the prevention of war while France insists that it has the right to resort independently to nuclear war if French national interests are threatened.
A NATO official described this danger to me as being “the most hairwhitening nightmare of all time,” because the more powerful the force de frappe becomes the more nervous and trigger happy the Russians can be expected to become.
France’s nuclear power is at present more potential than actual, representing about half of one percent of all nuclear power in existence. A French bomber pilot is reported to have answered a NATO staff officer’s query about its size by saying, “As of today I am the force de frappe.”
But De Gaulle has stated repeatedly that within ten to fifteen years France will have the nuclear power to protect all Europe from any combination of aggressors, without U. S. help.
“This is just one aspect of French policy which we have to contend with in the alliance,” said Ignatieff. “Another is the French conviction that NATO has long outlived its usefulness (French officials have described it publicly as an “antiquated relic”) and is being perpetuated as an instrument of American domination in Europe.
“Even more fundamental is the Gaullist rejection of multinational treaties and preference for bilateral agreements between individual states. Then there’s yet another difference, this time between France and NATO as an organization. We see our con-
ventional forces as a trip-wire laid along our front. There's enough slack to hold up a Russian advance long enough for an inter-Allied decision on what our response should be. But if the pressure is so great that the tripwire breaks, then a nuclear response is automatically triggered.
“The French view is that if a Russian soldier steps over the line we should reply by wiping out the Soviet Union. There would be no opportunity for second thoughts.”
Exasperated and worried by French intransigence and American obstinacy, as are all NATO officials, Ignatieff took the initiative last summer in trying to put the NATO house in order. After consulting with External Affairs in Ottawa, he tabled a paper before the council which consisted of two parts.
The first part listed the fundamental principles of the organization upon which there appeared to be general agreement. The second part listed all
the areas of disagreement between the Allies, and urged that these areas should comprise a priority agenda for full and frank discussion within the council.
He hoped that with the first list acting as foundation, item-by-item agreement on the subjects in the second list, would serve as the masonry for the new NATO house. As elections were pending in two vitally interested nations — France and West Germany — discussion on the paper
What’s needed for NATO? A fresh, dramatic sense of purpose
was postponed until the ministerial session of the council this month.
What will happen, and what actions will be taken on it, not even Ignatieff would care to predict.
“At least we are, in our own peculiar diplomatic parlance, seized of problems now spelled out pretty bluntly. That’s a start," he said.
Fluently trilingual in Russian, English and French. Ignatieff is a Russian - born Rhodes scholar who was brought to Canada at the age of seven by his parents. Count Paul and Princess Natalie Mestchersky.
The family escaped from Moscow during the Bolshevik revolution, and reached the Baltic coast where they
were picked up by one of several warships sent to rescue Czarist nobility, and taken to England.
Three years later, when all hope of returning to Moscow had vanished, the titles were replaced by the family name Ignatieff. and the family emigrated to Canada, eventually settling in Toronto.
Ignatieff graduated from the University of Toronto, worked for a while as a railroader with CPR in British Columbia, then won his scholarship to Oxford where he took a second MA degree. He joined External Affairs in 1940, the first foreignborn applicant to be accepted, and almost certainly the first direct descendant of one of Genghis Khan’s Tartar generals to become a Canadian diplomat.
He has since served in London, Washington and Belgrade, and has represented Canada on various United Nations committees and specialized agencies. He has spent eighteen of the last twenty-five years in postings outside C'anada.
Because of the awesome power facing across the East-West front from both directions, because of explosive inter-Allied differences, and because extraneous conflicts, such as the recent Cyprus issue, can bring the Allies to the edge of war with each other, NATO is the hottest ambassadorial chair Ignatieff has yet occupied. Of all Canadian diplomatic jobs, this one is so sensitive that it is the least capable of being publicized or spelled out in detail.
Normally, an ambassador is the accredited representative of one government to another. Ignatieff negotiates with fourteen national governments, possesses information which many of them regard as highly secret, and is a confidant of their diplomatic representatives here in Paris.
It may not be easy to pin down precisely what he has achieved as the Canadian troubleshooter in so turbulent an alliance, but a guide to his stature in the council is the fact that when the regular chairmen are absent, Ignatieff is often chosen to preside over council meetings.
The council meets formally once a week to function as top management of what is, in effect, a multi-billiondollar defense corporation. Twice yearly the council meets in ministerial session, attended by foreign secretaries and defense ministers who decide NATO policies.
Ignatieff believes that the present quarrel between France and the United States (with Britain and West Germany sitting anxiously on the sidelines ready to step in whenever their own national interests are at stake) is compelling evidence that NATO needs a new cohesive in the form of a fresh and dramatic sense of purpose.
He thinks NATO members may find new purpose in their organization if they develop hitherto undeveloped projects to provide economic, industrial and technological aid to underdeveloped countries.
“For nearly twenty years we have been concerned primarily with the defense of Western Europe. We are still concerned with it. but we face northward and eastward while behind our backs, in Africa and Asia, the Communists are subverting newly created. weak and vulnerable countries.
“If we don’t protect our interests in the dark areas of hunger and poverty to the south of us, we risk being outflanked and having, for example, an African Communist bloc supplying forces and bases to the
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Soviet Union against which we would be defenseless.”
He suggests that such an event could be forestalled by spreading NATO aid and influence across the free and nonaligned world as a bulwark against Russian and Chinese penetration of small economically weak nations.
“However, before we can do that,” he said, "we have to develop satisfactory relationships inside the alliance between the twelve non-nuclear members and the three major nuclear powers. Too m u c h power and responsibility is in too few hands. Some of the rest would like to share in control of that power, particularly West Germany, which is covered by seven hundred Soviet missiles.
“When you live under that sort of threat, when you know that if the balloon goes up your country will be the first to go, w'hen you have no means of protecting yourself other than weapons you cannot use without someone else’s consent, then you naturally feel a little resentful.
“The Americans proposed the multilateral nuclear fleet to satisfy the growing demand for a wider spread of nuclear authority inside the alliance. Now' that this idea appears to have been shelved, one suggested alternative is a two-tier system of running NATO.
This plan, proposed by U.S. Secretary Of Defense Robert McNamara, envisages the North Atlantic Council being supplemented by a nuclear directorate consisting of four or five member-states — the three nuclear powers plus West Germany and possibly Canada. This directorate would be responsible for all strategic nuclear planning, for the deployment of deterrent forces, and the integration of NATO nuclear operations and target lists with those of U.S. strategic forces.
“The tw'o-tier system is the most likely solution to our present difficulties,” he said, “because it comes pretty close to President de Gaulle’s proposal some years ago that Britain, France and the United States should form a three-power NATO directorate.”
High Allied strategy is Ignatieff’s day-to-day preoccupation, as are a myriad of NATO relationships with various international organizations whose work overlaps with the functions of the alliance. The Common Market negotiations, the GATT trade talks, and general international trade patterns affect NATO because they affect national budgets. The work of the International Atomic Energy Agency interests NATO because it likes to keep tabs on who is acquiring atomic reactors for peaceful purposes. Without safeguards the fissionable material necessary for atomic bombs can be drained off from any kind of reactor.
Yet his primary concern remains one of resolving the issues which divide the Allies so that NATO itself can develop. Four years from now, in 1969, the first twenty years of the North Atlantic treaty will expire. Thereafter any nation that wants to quit will be able to do so after giving one year’s notice. There have been no breakaways yet. hut internal stresses are increasing. ★