AN American in Europe today recognizes that in several respects this post-cold-war period is a turning point in trans-Atlantic relations.
Signs of the past are still there. United States troops remain in Germany, although in reduced numbers. A US general is still the supreme commander of NATO. US flags fly outside some hotels, reminders of days when American tourists outnumbered those from other lands. And signs in shops along the Normandy coast display the Stars and Stripes, along with other flags, and say, ``Thank You, Liberators.''
Other more recent indications of influences from America also proliferate. McDonald's arches are everywhere. So are T-shirts and caps from the Chicago Bulls or the Washington Redskins. European friends comment - not always favorably - on the growing dominance on commercial TV of Oprah Winfrey and Larry King.
At the same time, the Atlantic, in some ways, is growing wider. Europeans are preoccupied with problems of union and internal politics. Discussions on the future of Europe often contain no reference to Washington. Some press speculation asks whether the next NATO commander should be European.
Individual issues ruffle the waters. A British friend with three sons who have served in Northern Ireland speaks quietly, but with feeling, about the US rush to embrace Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein before all the problems of troubled Ulster have been worked out.
US efforts to lift the arms embargo on the Bosnian government face strong opposition from Britain and France, with their troops on the ground at risk. Some degree of resentment at the advice from a great nation across the water without troops committed is understandable. Europeans can be found, however, who say that Bosnia is not and should not be America's problem; it is the Europeans who have failed to deal adequately with a disaster on their continent.
Those Europeans who follow US events express worry over the state of its politics. They complain of the difficulty of detecting Washington's policy objectives among a welter of divergent voices and sudden shifts in directions. They are concerned that another presidency may be failing and that US leadership is lessening.
Nevertheless, the interest in retaining close ties with the US remains. One European, when asked whether he felt Europe was losing interest in the American relationship, replied, ``Our concern is that it is the other way around. The US is losing interest in Europe.'' He was referring to a commonly expressed concern that Washington more and more sees its future in ties with Asia. Europeans worry that such a shift will mean less attention to Europe and a reduced priority for traditional allies, especially Britain.
Although Europe is focusing more on its internal problems, the nations of Western Europe still find security in continuing trans-Atlantic links. With the growing integration of Germany into Western Europe, the US is seen less as a counterbalance to Germany and much more as insurance against an unstable Russia. Even France has moved to closer military cooperation with NATO.
US-European relations have never been completely smooth. But when major threats to Western Europe arose from Germany or Russia, the Atlantic bonds were strong and effective.
With changing ethnic and trade patterns in the US and greater concentration on internal cohesion and security in Europe, it is natural that the Atlantic relationships will change. What is surprising to the visitor, however, is not that the relationship is changing, but that, on the European side of the Atlantic, at least, strong recognition of the importance of US ties still exists.