Is America Ready for Burden Sharing?

THE Persian Gulf crisis should make both Europeans and Americans think hard about what ``burden sharing'' really means. French Prime Minister Michel Rocard rightly accuses Europeans of trying ``to live on the unearned income of history, drawing the dividends of a peace maintained by the United States.'' But even if European governments were willing and able to do more, they are not likely to put their soldiers at risk in - or finance - a war the US might start without their consent. Washington too often has confused honest disagreement with European wimpishness. That is not the case now. Europeans agree that Iraq's occupation of Kuwait is a clear case of international aggression, and that how it is resolved will do much to shape the post-cold war order. Their ships and planes are helping with the embargo and their money will cushion the blow to East Europe as well as to Turkey, Egypt, and Jordan.

But the Europeans, who felt they were regaining control of their destiny as the cold war ended and progress revived toward European unity, when put to the test still prefer to let Uncle Sam do the dirty work. It's not just a matter of throwing pennies into America's begging bowl (important as it is). Even a small group of European soldiers on the ground in Saudi Arabia would signal willingness to share the blood, and the political heat, if fighting ensues.

But do Americans really want a bigger role for Europe? What politicians mean by ``burden sharing'' is that Europeans should pay more in money, men, and political risk, to implement made-in-America policies. Washington's desire to preserve freedom of action, to make decisions, isn't the only reason for European buck-passing. But it's a big one.

If the US really wants to spread the burden it must also share decision-making. That won't always be possible. Some immediate military response was needed to the Iraqi invasion and getting the agreement of others would have taken too long. Washington won't take the pledge against ever acting alone. Neither would Paris or London.

But neither is it good enough to limit decision-sharing to joint communique's filled with fine rhetoric about resisting aggression. Burden sharing should include all decisions except those absolutely necessary to meet an immediate emergency. In the present situation that would have meant decisions about whether to go beyond sending a force sufficient to keep Iraq from attacking Saudi Arabia, to one capable of throwing Iraq out of Kuwait. It also means sharing decisions on how and when to use forces.

Burden sharing means that military force should be used only when sanctioned by the UN or at least as part of a joint effort. Any state deviating from that principle in an emergency should accept an obligation to give the international community a solid explanation. Americans may prefer keeping options open, and enjoy the ego-boost of being a last superpower, once again the savior of the free world. With talk of US decline, such a temptation exists. But yielding to it won't be healthy for the US or the world. We certainly shouldn't expect anyone else to foot the bill.

Thus more is at stake in the Gulf than whether aggression will be resisted. New habits are being formed in Europe and the US. Will Europeans be able to get their act sufficiently together to enhance their influence (not least over US actions) on issues affecting their vital interests? What happens to Europe's newly-regained sense of purpose and vitality if they cannot? To what extent will the US let its own actions be limited by international law and the policies of allies? What happens to the vaunted new international order if not?

The White House knows America can no longer afford to go it alone, and the president is both superb at shaping consensus among world leaders, and better at listening to his peers, than his predecessors. The next step, from listening to the advice of others to genuinely joint decision making, will be the hardest.

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