The Western European Union -- awakened from its slumber two years ago -- risks snoozing off again. The 14 foreign and defense ministers who gathered with fanfare in Bonn Monday to inaugurate the planned twice-yearly meetings of the WEU Council found themselves in a somewhat embarrassing position.
The most conspicuous measure of the WEU's lack of clout is the total absence on its official agenda of the hottest defense issue around: European participation in the American Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) research.
The WEU, whose whole purpose is to shape a coherent pan-European approach to defense and security issues, would seem to be the natural forum for such discussion, but Washington objected, and the idea was shelved. There will no doubt be informal talk about SDI, but nothing will appear in the official minutes and certainly not in the joint communiqu'e.
The reason for WEU's retreat into disuse is a combination of heightened US suspicion of Europe and reduced French suspicion of West Germany.
In 1983, when NATO was worried that European peace movements might block the new Euromissile deployments due to start at the end of the year, WEU looked like just the right organization to allay both the American and the French alarms. Its restricted European membership -- West Germany, Britain, France, Italy, and the Benelux countries -- meant that the nay-saying Greeks and Danes couldn't block common positions.
Besides, the French membership in WEU meant Paris could gracefully increase its cooperation with NATO through the WEU without ever admitting publicly that Charles de Gaulle had damaged rather than helped European security by pulling out of the NATO military alliance in 1967.
The WEU could institutionalize and broaden the growing French-German defense cooperation, and -- some Germans hoped -- reactivate the French commitment to help defend West Germany from the moment of attack -- a commitment stipulated in the original WEU charter but ignored by Paris, which since 1967 has been intent on stressing its independence in defense decisions.
Also, by removing the remaining WEU bans on Bonn's military production -- as was done -- WEU enthusiasts thought resuscitating the ``alliance within the alliance'' could symbolize the full readmission of West Germany into polite company.
The logic was persuasive, and the WEU -- founded in 1948, then rendered anachronistic as NATO was set up in 1949 and admitted West Germany to membership in 1955 -- held its first ministerial meeting in decades in Rome last fall. Beyond symbolism, the WEU's main task was expected to be to steer arms collaboration to make European weapons competitive with American, and thus make a better use of limited budgets and a greater European contribution to NATO.
Once Washington requested European participation in SDI ``star wars'' research this year, coordination of a joint European response also seemed an ideal task for the WEU -- until US Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Richard Burt objected a few weeks ago. The US was leery of any organized European resistance to SDI, it seemed, and wanted SDI negotiations to proceed only bilaterally with the US or in NATO forums in which the US was also a member.
Bonn, thereupon backed away from any WEU declaration on ``star wars.'' So did London.
At the same time the French interest waned in making some grand gesture with WEU. NATO Euromissiles were smoothly deployed in West Germany last year, and Paris became less skittish about West German ``neutralism,'' deciding that Bonn would remain loyal to the West without needing to be locked into a redundant European alliance.