AMERICAN policy-makers have made too much of an assumed Soviet strategic goal to ``de-couple'' the United States from Europe. Indeed, Mikhail Gorbachev seems to understand that severing US ties to Europe would mean that the Soviet Union's interests would become even more difficult to ensure, since no rationale for alliance cohesion and policy congruence would remain. Gorbachev expressed such a view in his Strasbourg speech of early summer, when he told the European Parliament that both the US and the USSR have roles to play in a ``common European home.''
Regardless, we should be re-assessing policies that have been distancing the US from Europe. Without quick and forceful measures the US will become irrelevant to the European future.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration moves with ``prudence'' and ``caution,'' both with NATO allies and the Warsaw Pact. Yet change in Europe is fast-forwarding. We are de-coupling ourselves from Europe via an approach to the continent that tries to preserve what we have had, and to forestall evident political trends.
In the 1980s, Western European states have emerged from the shadow of the US and embarked on distinctive visions of security and order. We shall see these differences expand in the 1990s with electoral victories in which old-line Social Democrats accommodate pro-environmental, anti-military parties and movements. Together with the economic power of a single European market implied by ``1992,'' such a sense of political maturity spells an end to European obeisance to an American perception of the world.
To such momentum, one must add the obvious infatuation of the Western European public with Mikhail Gorbachev, and the diminished US willingness to pay for a military presence there. America's de-coupling from Europe has been set in motion not by Moscow machinations, but new Western realities, and our own immobility.
Regardless of Gorbachev's immediate fortunes in Moscow, we must recognize that policies rooted in the assumptions of adversarial relationships are a slippery slope on which to base ties to Europe.
Very soon, ``socialist neutrality'' among Warsaw Pact members may present the US with adversaries that behave in ways indistinguishable from neutral states such as Austria and Sweden. Although Hungary, for example, may retain a nominal membership in the pact, its participation may diminish while its economic and cultural ties to the West multiply.
National interests of East bloc states have splintered the alliance on matters of regional security. Bilateral disputes with the potential for violence exist between pact members Romania and Hungary as well as between Bulgaria and Turkey.
During the '90s, these national interests will affect military policy in Eastern Europe. Force deployments will change - align to national interests. Hungary, for example, will move troops to the east, facing Romania. A transformation of military doctrine is also likely as East Europeans reject expensive armored divisions.
Both Western and Eastern Europe have already shed much of their post-War War II straitjackets. This is discomfiting for Washington, and for Moscow particularly.
In that regard, the Bush administration has an opportunity of enormous consequence - to step in front of Europe's transformations, rather than seeking to guide them from behind. The US need not, unlike the USSR, concerned about losing control of its allies, fear an independent, mature, and unified Western Europe.
Begun haltingly at the July Paris summit, NATO must be recast as a primarily political expression. Shared interests should supplant the military raison d'etre of the alliance. Shared interests are many: from opposing terrorism and protecting the environment, to aiding the third world and Eastern Europe, and promoting democratic reform in authoritarian regimes.
To be sure, NATO's military mission cannot be abandoned. Yet it should no longer exist for primarily that reason.
A symbolic way for the US to signal a new understanding of European realities would be to pass the NATO military command to a European. For 40 years, a US general has held the post.
Politically we must do more. NATO's transition to a political instrument of the West requires building new alliance structures, or revitalizing old ones.
In Eastern Europe, the US must embrace new governments, and form ties with old adversaries. Our need to take economic chances in support of new non-communist governments is obvious. The historic moment to aid East Europeans (well beyond Bush's symbolic levels) cannot be allowed to pass. Why not assemble the collective wealth of democratic allies?
In all of this, there is a greater urgency than found in the caution and prudence of the Bush administration. The stakes are extraordinarily high. Unless we ``gear up'' to the changes in Europe, the de-coupling of America from the continent is assured. That is an outcome we can't afford.