February 11, 2001

Europe's Shifting Role Poses Challenge to U.S.


Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

BERLIN, Feb. 10 ó A little phrase from Rudolf Scharping, the German defense minister, recently caused American military commanders to shudder: "As the European Union develops its security and defense policy and becomes an independent actor, we must determine our security policy with Russia, our biggest neighbor."

The specter of Europe ó and particularly its central power, Germany ó adopting a more independent stance from NATO and paying close heed to Russia is chilling for the United States, and hard to reconcile with the Atlantic alliance that has preserved Europe's stability and advanced American interests for more than a half-century.

The alliance is not about to fall apart: too much is at stake for that, not least the peace of mind of the many Europeans who still believe this continent is inherently unstable unless America is present. But as Mr. Scharping's words suggest, something fundamental has shifted in the transatlantic relationship.

The 15-member European Union, long a mere trade bloc ultimately protected by American power, has begun to develop into a grouping with its own serious military and strategic ambitions. Where exactly such ambitions are directed remains uncertain, but this much seems clear: the scope of Europe's quest for an altered balance of power in its post- cold war ties with Washington is not yet fully appreciated by the Bush administration.

Addressing the allies for the first time last week in Munich, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld did not use the words "European Union" once.

It was this omission ó as much as Mr. Rumsfeld's stark warning to the Europeans to avoid "actions that could reduce NATO's effectiveness by confusing duplication or by perturbing the transatlantic link" ó that was noted in European capitals.

"It appeared that the European Union was not yet on Mr. Rumsfeld's radar screen," said Wolfgang Ischinger, a senior official in the German Foreign Ministry. "Of course, it was not a factor the last time he was in office. But the fact is the development of the Union's defense identity is an accelerating process that it would be a mistake to oppose."

Already, the European Union has set up a military planning staff, established a so-called political and security committee and is readying a 60,000-member rapid reaction force. At the same time, most of the Union is less than a year away from the fast-forward to a European identity likely to occur when the euro becomes the currency on the streets of Barcelona, Brussels and Berlin. The euro was always a political project; its politics involve forging a united Europe as a counterweight to American dominance.

How the Europeans finesse their challenge to American superpower assumptions has yet to be defined. France, for example, wants Europe's new military arm to be "independent" from NATO, or at least equipped to be so; Britain rejects such ideas as destabilizing Gallic dreams. But Europe has clearly decided to create the embryo of an army because it has determined that this is in its interest, because it believes that this is the only way to convince skeptical electorates of the need to increase defense spending, and because it views the development as an essential complement to economic and political integration.

It wants to be treated as a bloc and as an equal within the alliance, so ending the relationship of a single superpower to a bunch of far smaller allies. For Joschka Fischer, the German foreign minister, such European integration amounts to a "historical process" and, as such, is unstoppable ó even by America.

The parallels are obvious to another development portrayed as unstoppable and inevitable by President Bush: the American construction and deployment of a system of national missile defense of which Europeans remain suspicious.

As these two projects ó Europe's rapid reaction force, America's missile shield ó confront each other, a profound change in transatlantic relations seems clear. At other times of post-war tensions, like the resistance in Germany, Italy, Britain and elsewhere to the deployment of new medium-range missiles in the early 1980's, the arguments centered on a European reaction to an American- directed policy.

This time, however, both Europe and the United States are pushing ideas they perceive to be in their inviolable interests. Neither is ready to budge. Each will have to accommodate the other. In this sense, the European Union has become an "actor" ó unwieldy, underfunded ó but still a body that acts as well as reacts.

Across the broad range of European-American differences ó from subsidies for the new Airbus "Superjumbo" aircraft to what diplomats now call the "social conflicts" over issues like gun control, the death penalty and the use of genetically modified food ó this growing European coherence weighs heavily.

The issues may prove especially intractable because, as Mr. Ischinger noted, "We now have a different thinking about power and structures."

Europeans have just traded in a lot of their national sovereignty for the euro and so view the world very much in multilateral terms. The United States remains fiercely attached to its sovereignty; the new administration wants to bolster national defense as it questions automatic recourse to multilateralism.

As at any time of strategic flux, there seem to be real dangers of misunderstanding. "Increased European capabilities are a political imperative for both sides of the Atlantic," said Gen. Wesley K. Clark, the former NATO commander in Europe who retired recently. "But the evolution of European capabilities should not distance the European Union from NATO. Europe must not become a middle ground between NATO on the one hand and Russia on the other."

A lot of thinking has already gone into ensuring this does not happen. NATO and the European Union are going to meet at ambassadorial level six times a year and at ministerial level at least once a year to ensure that, to use Mr. Rumsfeld's phrase, Europe's new defense plans do not end up "injecting instability" into the alliance. These meetings will involve bizarre overlapping ó 11 of NATO's 19 members are also members of the European Union ó but reflect a determination to avoid misunderstandings. Still, many American questions remain.

What missions exactly is the new European force to serve? When, if ever, would Europe want to act militarily without the United States? Will scarce resources not be diverted from NATO? Is duplication not inevitable?

American officials also ask whether it would not be better to increase defense spending ó a mere 1.4 percent of gross national product in Germany compared to about 3.5 percent in the United States ó rather than paying for new institutions. And they wonder why Congress should approve funding for NATO if Europe has its own defense structure.

"The danger is that the Europeans will set up the European Union as a competitor and alternative to NATO," said one American military expert. "Then they say to the Russians, `Don't worry, work with us, we know the United States is too forceful.' At that point, different geography and different interests become impossible to contain within NATO."

The Europeans dismiss such concerns. They point to the fact that the United States ó most recently in the Balkans ó has repeatedly called on Europe to become more capable of projecting force and acting coherently. They recall the Kosovo war, where the European contribution was compromised by the continent's technological arrears. They say a strong alliance for the 21st century must be a balanced one.

At present, there are only about 50 centralized European military planning staff ó compared to more than eight times that at NATO military headquarters. Britain, backed by Germany, argues for planning to remain essentially under NATO's control.

But France wants Europe to have a large and independent military planning staff. Meanwhile, Turkey ó an alliance member angered at being excluded from the nascent European forces ó has balked at allowing NATO to plan for the Europeans.

In the end, however, it seems clear that Europe needs America ó for the practical military reason that only America has the airlift, reconnaissance and intelligence equipment to make a mission feasible, and for the strategic reason that in a Europe where America is no longer a power, German power becomes uncomfortably conspicuous.

And Mr. Bush may find that he needs the Europeans for his national missile defense system ó for the practical reason that a deep transatlantic rift would be very costly in trade and other areas, and strategically to preserve alliances.

For now, the Europeans seem ready to adopt a wait-and-see approach to Mr. Bush's idea. Their resistance is real and their concerns serious: what if, for example, China increases its missile force, exports missiles and thus goads India into following suit?

Mr. Bush's plan now seems to be part of a general military reassessment that could involve large unilateral cuts in the American nuclear arsenal. As such, it is certain to be more palatable to the Europeans.

"On missile defense, we have decided on a soft approach combined with pressing questions," said Mr. Ischinger. "But the Americans must understand that no real military threats are perceived by most Germans and there is no way we can sell a larger defense budget unless we push forward the creation of a European force."

Such "understanding" still has to be reached in Washington. "Weaken NATO and we weaken Europe, which weakens all of us," Mr. Rumsfeld said in Munich, at the gathering where Mr. Scharping alarmed Americans with his glimpse of other defense options. The fact is that a stronger, more united, less vulnerable Europe, with no enemy at its door, no longer sees its interests in such straightforward terms.

One senior NATO official likened the adjustments now needed in the alliance as a result of Europe's growing cohesion and ambitions to "brain surgery ó important, essential, doable, but if it goes wrong, a disaster."