PARIS — EUROPEAN defense officials are closing in on an agreement with Washington that would enable Europe to mount peacekeeping operations within NATO - and without the US.
But such an agreement would be of little value unless Europe defines what kind of conflicts to enter and how to do it, many diplomats say.
For Europeans, the expected accord is an effort to act independently in conflicts important to the Continent, at a time when the US appears more reluctant to intervene in countries not deemed vital to its security. But, admits a European diplomat, a deal with the US may not be enough. ''Governments need to get back to basics and try to find a defense policy that will work,'' he says.
Since the end of World War II, the United States has been deeply involved in Europe's defense through its leadership in NATO. Yet America's role in brokering and enforcing a peace deal in Bosnia last year was humiliating for Europeans after they struggled for years to resolve the crisis on their own. It was a bitter reminder that Europe had become dependent on the US, and NATO's firepower, to put a credible force in the field.
''European institutions are not yet adequate to deal with the security problems they face,'' says Richard Holbrooke, the former US diplomat who brokered Bosnia's peace deal.
The conflict in Bosnia also exposed rifts within the Atlantic alliance. For example, America's unilateral decision in the fall of 1994 to cut off satellite surveillance of the arms embargo on Bosnia alarmed Europeans.
But of greater concern was the prospect that Congress would not authorize the deployment of US troops to rescue besieged European soldiers on the ground.
Effect of US primaries
Europeans realized they would not be able to rely on American leadership forever. The tone of the current US presidential campaign, as well as isolationist voices in the US Congress, increased concerns that the US could opt out of its role as global supercop, leaving Europe ill-equipped to fend for itself.
The solution: a more flexible NATO command. In June, NATO foreign ministers meeting in Berlin are expected to approve a deal to allow Europeans the use of NATO equipment and logistical support to mount their own task forces in operations that the US does not want to support.
In the event that the US pulled its troops out of Bosnia before the conflict was settled, this concept would also allow Europeans to carry on with NATO support.
''NATO officials and diplomats aren't talking openly about this option,'' says Frederic Bozo, who writes on security issues for the Paris-based French Institute of International Relations. ''Officially, the line is that the Europeans and the Americans came together and will leave together. But this command structure could be politically rewarding for Europeans in the event that they need to take over the operation when the Americans leave.''
Under the new concept, NATO partners could field ''separable but not separate'' forces. That is, if France, Italy, and Spain wanted to send a peacekeeping force to Rwanda, they could use NATO planes, air cover, satellite intelligence, and logistical support - even if the US opted not to participate.
Such a force could even be under one nation's command - a longtime French demand. In the past, US objections to a mission would have been an effective veto on NATO action.
''The concept of a joint task force is very important to us,'' says a French Defense Ministry spokesman. ''It means that a NATO force can be directed by a European.''
French and NATO officials emphasize, however, that such a force would not act within NATO member states, such as to curb terrorism by Spain's Basque separatists, but only in security problems at Europe's periphery.
The US and France first proposed the joint-task-force concept at a NATO summit in January 1994. But diplomats say French President Jacques Chirac's decision on Dec. 5, 1995, to rejoin NATO's military command after a 30-year absence is key to the agreement.
''France's decision to pursue the creation of a European defense identity within NATO gave us greater confidence that France would play a role like other allies,'' says a senior NATO diplomat. ''For example, that if NATO created a joint task force, France would participate.''
Yet US diplomats remain wary of French calls for a ''European pillar'' within NATO. ''Americans prefer the term 'European visibility' or 'European identity,' to avoid the view that there would be a separate entity within NATO,'' says the NATO diplomat.
French Defense Ministry spokesmen insist that France never wanted to construct two chains of command within NATO. Rather, France hopes that Europeans will use the Council of Europe or the Western European Union (the EU's fledgling military group) to agree on common defense strategies within NATO.
Can't wait for US
''These decisions impose a duty of solidarity on all Europeans, because these policies have been forged together, in Europe and by Europeans,'' says a French Defense Ministry spokesman.
''For each crisis we can't wait for the US to come and save us, as we did in Bosnia,'' he adds. ''Had we acted more forcefully, earlier, the situation might never have become as serious as it did.''