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Does it Have to be Europe versus NATO?

It’s an experience we’ve all had in our private relationships and affairs. The incident, the argument, not too important in itself, that tells us there may be deeper problems here. Most often, we back away. Don’t go there – at least, not yet.
It’s happening now between the United States and Europe. There’s been a nasty snit and counter-snit over the European Union’s (EU) desire to create its own Rapid Reaction Force – a single, European army. There’s also been a hasty, nervous, awkward post-snit embrace. Let’s not go there – at least, not yet. But we need to go there, the sooner the better. We, the World’s Only Superpower, won’t like what we hear. But we need to hear it.

In 1991, NATO became an alliance without an enemy. Europe found itself with over a million useless soldiers: useless, that is, for anything beyond territorial defense against a vanished enemy. That same year, the Treaty of Maastricht turned the old European Economic Community into the EU. Free trade had segued into grander ambitions, including a defense force that would operate more or less outside of NATO – in other words, more or less beyond American command.

For most of the decade, not much happened. The EU’s members were engaged in reassessing their own national capabilities; in moving away from conscription; and in downsizing their forces and expenditures. The United States continued its old ways, nagging them to do more for their own defense, mumbling about a new “transatlantic division of labor,” and periodically reminding them who’s really in charge.

Then it happened. Last November, the EU got serious about creating, by 2003, a force 60,000 strong, capable of deploying 1,500 to 2,000 kilometers beyond their borders in a few weeks and operating for a year or more. Member states pledged more than 100,000 troops, 100 ships, and 400 aircraft. Non-member states from Turkey to Iceland also volunteered.

America got miffed.

In theory, the United States supports the idea. The Pentagon’s December 2000 paper, “Strengthening Transatlantic Security,” states: “The United States welcomes European efforts to increase their contribution to collective defense and crisis response operations within NATO and build a capability to act militarily under the EU where NATO as a whole is not engaged. … we are prepared to adapt ourselves in the future to work with stronger, more versatile, and more united European partners.”

The reality may be otherwise. At his final NATO ministerial meeting, defense secretary William Cohen seemed a bit like Archie Bunker responding to Edith’s long-anticipated yet suddenly unexpected request for an evening out alone. There would be, he warned, no “EU caucus” in NATO. Nothing must be done to endanger the alliance. There must, he concluded, be “unity” — continued American control. After the Brussels tirade, and at the EU summit in Nice, the Europeans provided the requisite hasty kiss-and-make-up. No, we won’t endanger NATO. And yes, America, you’re still in charge and we love you as much as ever.

Why the spat? Militarily, the EU/RRF poses no threat to NATO. Rather the opposite. This will not be a standing combat force; its missions extend only to humanitarian work, peace-keeping, and peace-enforcing. Soldiers and equipment, much improved recently, will be available for NATO use in war.

Much of its planning will be done within NATO military structures. There will still be great dependence on NATO and American intelligence and communications capabilities. Finally, the force is specifically intended to ease the burden on the United States and to get things done when NATO unanimity is neither possible nor desirable.

Nor does the EU/RRF present a political threat to NATO. Those who worry that the force will operate in defiance of American wishes, or against American interests, need to offer up some plausible scenarios. Where? Why? How? And toward what end?

Still, there is a problem. Or, to put it more bluntly, the beginnings of a serious challenge to the whole “America Must Lead Because America Must Lead” national hubris. Since Desert Storm, the United States has not had a foreign policy worthy of the name, only an endless, meandering counterpoint of sound bites and ordnance expenditure. Europe knows it.

Since the Soviet collapse, and the Balkan mess notwithstanding, non-European concerns have eclipsed the Atlantic connection. The EU’s here to stay and will over time grow ever more important as a global force.

Europe knows that, too.

No, the EU/RRF threatens neither NATO nor America. Nor is it necessarily the first military move towards “A Europe That Can Say No” for the sake of saying no. But the United States must recognize that, in this particular relationship, one partner is changing and growing much faster than the other.

And that it’s time, in the words of an old Olivia Newton-John hit, to “let someone else be strong.”

Philip Gold is director of defense and aerospace studies at Discovery Institute, Seattle.