As US Flexes Military Might, Europe Pleased - and Miffed

Clinton has US playing its historic role in NATO: taking the lead

PRESIDENT Clinton's foreign-policy star is clearly rising over Europe.

A widespread relief here that America now is providing the leadership Europe expects from Washington largely outweighs the remorse that Europeans were not able to handle the Balkans crisis on their own.

An embarrassingly public transatlantic search for a new NATO secretary-general is also about to come to an end: Sources close to NATO were seeing a consensus forming yesterday for Spanish Foreign Minister Javier Solana Madariaga.

As Europe looks forward to the signing of the Bosnia accord, now set for Dec. 14 in Paris, feelings hurt and egos bruised by the muscular diplomacy of American envoy Richard Holbrooke in Dayton, Ohio, are healing. And news of an Anglo-Irish breakthrough on another issue the president has made his own, Northern Ireland, provided a diplomatic tailwind as he headed for London earlier this week for a five-day European trip.

Germans, in particular, are grateful that the United States has provided ''leadership of the more traditional kind'' on Bosnia, says Klaus Becher, research fellow at the German Society for Foreign Policy (DGAP). He is referring to Mr. Clinton's willingness to ''make decisions and stand up for them before the Congress.'' Dr. Becher adds, ''One hasn't seen this very often in the last few years - in the Clinton administration or the Bush administration.''

Serious issues remain on the transatlantic agenda, however. ''This has not been a good year for European-American relations.... Both sides haven't yet found a post-cold-war modus vivendi,'' says Sir Laurence Martin of London's Royal Institute of International Affairs.

Sir Laurence credits Mr. Holbrooke for his ''tough, hands-on diplomacy'' and notes that Clinton has had a ''number of foreign-policy triumphs - several of which may turn out to be genuine.'' But he sees the larger issue as ''American vacillation between an indifference, an apathy'' on international matters.

That apathy is accompanied by a sort of crabby ''intrusiveness'' when America does decide to get involved, he says. Sir Laurence cites the US ''blowing hot and cold'' on the possible expansion of NATO to the east as another example of this vacillation. During the cold war, a domineering America that expected to give all the orders was ''slightly more natural and less conspicuous'' than it is today, in his view.

SIGNS of French pique over how Dayton was handled can be read between the lines of a front-page news analysis, based on French sources, of ''divergences euro-americaines'' on Bosnia in the newspaper Le Monde this week. It sketches Clinton as constrained by the electoral calendar and congressional math as he seeks the votes needed to support sending ground troops to the Balkans. It also sketches a State Department inflicting ''humiliations'' on Europeans in the ''contact group'' - made up of the United States, Britain, France, Germany, and Russia - under whose auspices the Dayton conference was convened.

Asked about this, a French official acknowledged, ''It's true that there have been some difficulties and misunderstandings ... but the internal divergences are not on the agenda now.... It's a reality that with a much clearer involvement of the US, the momentum has changed.''

Another European official says, ''Basically, the American involvement has been welcome. It shows we can do something effective if America takes the lead role.''

The situation has changed in recent months, he adds, referring to the Croatian offensive against the Serbs and NATO air raids: ''It was the right moment to act.'' He adds, however: ''Two years ago, that would have also been the right moment.''

Simon Serfaty, professor of American foreign policy at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. (and a Frenchman), describes himself as ''astonished by the extent to which there is a pique, an irritation'' in France over the handling of the Bosnia accord. ''They are genuinely angry, as if they were left on the sidelines'' in Dayton. On the contrary, he points out: Clinton has taken special care to acknowledge European contributions to the peace efforts.

''In the end, Europeans remain unprepared to wage war or make peace,'' Professor Serfaty says. ''Their anger is probably a reflection of their frustration at their inabilities to act as nation-states and their inability to act as a union of nations.''

A Bonn official says of the Bosnia issue, ''The whole story has emphasized the need for Europeans to get their act together.''

Less diplomatically, perhaps, Mr. Becher says that with American assumption of a lead role on Bosnia, the idea of a ''European defense identity'' has taken ''some hard knocks.'' This idea had been promoted by the French with support of about half of the German foreign-policy community, according to Becher.

The Bosnia experience suggests that when push comes to shove, Americans expect to have a say. ''What they say behind closed doors seems to be a truer reflection of actual feelings,'' Becher says.

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