Life without NATO

The new administration's secretary of State, Colin Powell, and the next president's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, have outlined the major foreign problems they expect to face. No surprises. Smooth transition. Familiar generalities: Middle East, Saddam Hussein's Iraq, the need to husband American military resources now stretched thin around the world, and reassurances to America's allies that Washington will not disengage into new isolation.

Missing from the catalog is recognition that the great alliance on which so much American policy rests faces serious difficulty. NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, has ensured Europe's security for half a century. It is admittedly indispensable for continued stability. Yet, today its solidarity is threatened by some of its European members.

The 15 nations of the European Union (EU) have reaffirmed their intention to establish a military rapid reaction force of their own, 60,000 troops able to take to the field by 2003. It would comprise contingents of their national armies, earmarked for service in the force on 60 days notice, trained and equipped for one year's service on a mission set by the EU. This could include conflict prevention, humanitarian aid, crisis management, and peace enforcement as in Kosovo.

The aim, say the Europeans, is to handle their own security problems without calling on Washington, especially in matters of no direct interest to the United States. The question is how this would fit in with NATO. The prime mover in the program is France, which wants only the loosest connection with the alliance. It specifically demands completely independent staffs for planning and operations ordered and led by the EU.

France has for decades, in the name of European autonomy, manuevered to reduce American influence in continental affairs. In 1954, France invented the Western European Union as a defense community that excluded the US. The WEU was ultimately absorbed by the EU, of which the US is also not a member.

In 1966, President Charles de Gaulle threw NATO headquarters out of Paris and pulled his country out of the NATO-integrated military command structure.

For all that, neither de Gaulle nor his successors have altered the fact that during the cold war European security would have been an illusion without America's massive presence in NATO. And when Yugoslavia blew up in 1991, it was primarily French and British bungling that kept the war going until the US stepped in with air attacks and the Dayton political agreements. In 1991, it was again the US that put together a posse that drove Slobodan Milosevic's Serbian "ethnic cleansers" out of Kosovo.

Although the Europeans pitched in and have borne most of the burden in Kosovo, the military campaign was a bitter humiliation. Without American strength - marshalled through NATO in battlefield command and control, reconnaissance and intelligence, as well as huge airlift capacity - it would have been a failure.

Most of the Europeans are well aware of this and want their new rapid-reaction force to operate through NATO, avoiding the confusion of independent staffs. France, a great nation which refuses to face the fact that it is a second-rate power, cannot alter the fact that European air defense today consists of 18 American AWACS reconnaissance planes. It may sneer at American superpower as "hyperpuissance," but decades would pass before Europe could match it and go it alone. Experts say military budgets would have to be increased a staggering - and probably impossible - 50 percent even to start long-delayed modernization.

Europe would have to cut its way through a whole tangle of contradictions. Since it wants a UN mandate to commit troops, the US veto in the UN Security Council could block anything Washington disapproved.

As for harmonizing NATO and EU security objectives, eight of the 19 NATO members are not in the EU, and the EU is in the process of expanding to more than 20. An outline of an agreed European defense and security policy to govern the whole doesn't even exist.

There is real danger that this hocus-pocus could becloud and even undermine NATO's effectiveness as Europe's one established, tested, security agency and as the armature of the Western community. It is a danger that US military and economic strength can't do anything about.

Many Europeans are genuinely afraid that the US may once again turn away from them and to its own affairs. Broad reassurance is not enough. Finesse is needed to meet the doubts and fears that now distort the laudable object of European integration in all fields.

Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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