ONLY a few months ago, Euro-optimists enthused about the emergence of a new European superpower - big, united, and powerful. A dramatic united market program was reinvigorating the 12-nation Common Market. Germany was coming together at an extraordinary pace and looked likely to pull the rest of the continent into a new era of prosperity. By the end of the century, the optimists insisted, Eastern Europe would be part of the Common Market and the Europe of 700 million people would be equal partners with the US, Japan, and the rest of the world.
Then came the Gulf crisis.
Instead of acting unified, the Europeans rushed in separate directions. The British joined ranks with Washington. The French, eager to protect interests in the Arab world and to appease a nervous population, pursued a separate plan. The Germans held back, preoccupied with reunification and a loathing of war.
The failure to unite on the Gulf crisis dealt a heavy blow to European unity. It cast doubt on the continent's hopes to achieve political union and a Euro-defense strategy. Even Jacques Delors, president of the European Commission, called the continent's response ``ineffectual.''
So what is the truth? Is Europe a superpower or a super wimp?
The answer is: somewhere in between. Euro-optimists overdid it before the Gulf crisis; Euro-pessimists are overdoing it now.
EUROPE has a bright future. It's an economic powerhouse, a haven of peace, a beacon of democracy. But Europe lacks the political coherence of the US. For now, that prevents it from carrying out a foreign policy and means Washington must tote the burdens and laurels of leadership.
Once war broke out, the Europeans at least closed ranks behind America. Meeting in Paris, the nine-nation Western European Union offered support for military action. British, French, and Italian warplanes are now fighting. Even the Germans finally sent fighter planes to Turkey, and pledged billions of deutsche marks for the coalition.
Rowdy pacifists aside, European opinion backs Washington and the crisis has helped with unity. In October, the European Community agreed to achieve monetary union and a single Euro-currency by 1995. Such speed was unthinkable before Iraq invaded Kuwait. An inter-government conference on political union continues its work. Federally-minded Europeans argue the crisis shows that a common foreign policy is more needed than ever and are calling for the replacement of unanimous voting on diplomatic initiatives by a new, more flexible system of voting.
The lessons are clear. Europe is united in its shared belief in democracy and capitalism. When the issue is primarily economic, it can act in unison.
Take Eastern Europe. The European Commission is coordinating economic aid to the fledgling democracies. In 1990, it distributed $36 billion to the region. The European Commissioner for Foreign Affairs, Frans Andriessen, said the Gulf war would not stop aid.
But as soon as a military or diplomatic issue comes up, the community is impotent. Until an effective system is formed, that leaves a role for the US on the continent. The Gulf war has demonstrated that the US remains the only Western power capable of carrying out a large-scale military operation overseas. European pretensions to form a defense structure look premature.
In this climate, talk of pulling US troops out of Europe is dangerous. The cold war is drawing down, but Mikhail Gorbachev's decision to resort to force in the Baltics shows a breakup of the Soviet Union still threatens European security. There's a need for a transatlantic defense - NATO.
This American military role will permit Europe to continue evolving into a global economic powerhouse, as important to Americans as Japan.
American business is betting on a decade of European prosperity and investment opportunities. Coca Cola, Pepsi, General Electric and other American companies have made recent major investments in Europe. Meanwhile, European investment in the United States doubled to more than $250 billion in 1990.
It would be fine for the US if Europe could take care of its own defense and play an active, assertive role in the Gulf. But the fact that Europe's military and diplomatic punch doesn't equal its economic power does not negate the continent's importance to the US.
In the early 1980s Europe was hemmed in by a burly Russian bear, mired in economic recession, and unsure of its own democratic values. Today, the Russian bear is confused and in disarray. Democracy and capitalism have triumphed.
Europe may remain a second-rate political partner, but it is already a first-rate economic partner, ready to play a positive role in a postwar world order.