AMBASSADORS from 27 European countries will gather on June 27, far from cameras and nosy reporters, in a conference chamber in Brussels.
Talk of Bosnia will no doubt be on their lips. But the envoys will be looking far beyond that conflict. Their twice-monthly get-togethers, now routine, have become dedicated to redefining the strategic map of Europe into the 21st century.
Many European nations are planning for the day when the United States may no longer be willing to come to their aid in an emergency. Others, newly released from Soviet and communist domination, are seeking a defense shield from Russia.
The road they are traveling is strewn with obstacles, but Jean-Marie Guehenno, France's representative at next week's meeting, is convinced the journey must be undertaken. He points to "unmistakable signs" in Washington that the US commitment to Europe is "not what it used to be."
The work of the envoys and the 100 planners who assist them, he says, is "crucial to Europe's future security."Until the Berlin Wall came down, Europeans rested easy in the knowledge that the US would come to their assistance in an attack under NATO authority. Members of the Western Alliance, created in 1949 in the wake of World War II, pledged to help each other - and still are.
But according to Jonathan Eyl, director of studies at London's Royal United Services Institute, the end of the cold war has produced "a new set of circumstances and a new political mood" in Washington and the capitals of Europe.
A 'cycle of disputes'
Mr. Eyl says Europeans must accept that the US will one day hesitate to aid its allies on the other side of the Atlantic. But he says it will be "a long, hard struggle" to break out of the "infuriating cycle of disputes" that has plagued Europe's military arrangements since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Looking to the future, Eyl says the debate about Europe's new security arrangements, "closely resembles the battle over monetary union. Everything is suffocated by a mixture of acronyms, theological interpretations of incomprehensible treaties, hot air, and outright deceit."
One of the acronyms at the heart of the debate is 10-nation WEU, or Western European Union. (Non-member states involved in WEU policy are Denmark, Ireland, Austria, Sweden, Finland, which are members of the European Union, as well as Norway, Iceland, Turkey, and nine ex-communist states).
This strategic forum, launched in 1948, has been thrust into the shadows for 40 years by NATO. But it may be key to European defense, separate from the US.
WEU, whose headquarters moved from London to Brussels in 1993, is working against a deadline. At a key summit next year, EU heads of government will want to hear about progress toward "the eventual framing of a common defense policy which may in time lead to a common defense," as stated in the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, which laid out plans for the further integration of Europe.
But each European country has widely different visions of future European defense. The British have always leaned toward an Atlantic connection to the US and Canada, for example, while the French, since they left the military framework of NATO in 1966, have been much more Europe-centered. They have seen Germany as their closest ally.
Col. Andrew Duncan of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London is skeptical of attempts by France and other European states to think beyond the NATO framework and exclude the US from their calculations.
"We have an alliance already in being," Colonel Duncan says. "It is in good working order, and the Americans are our indispensable allies."
But in Paris, Dominique Moisi of the French Institute for International Relations sees "signs of a new situation." He points to the 5,000-strong Franco-German Brigade, created in 1989, and Britain and France's decision last year to establish a joint-planning group for their air forces.
"Progress on cooperation may be slow, and it would be foolish to pretend that at present Europe could defend itself without America," Mr. Moisi says. "However, it is obvious that new security challenges are emerging, and they demand European solutions."
Moisi, like many French analysts, says US interest in the defense of Europe is waning. "I find it significant that in the case of Bosnia, President Clinton has refused to commit American ground troops," he says.
Europeans have lately been getting some subtle guidance from the Clinton administration about where they should begin to focus their attention on strategic matters.
Former US President Bush was never keen for the Europeans to defend their continent on their own, but President Clinton's philosophy is different. He is under pressure from Congress to scale down US presence in Europe. But even before the Republicans won control of Congress last year, Clinton showed a readiness to give Europeans more responsibility for their own security.
"The WEU will help to focus minds on security, and thus aid the EU's attempts at common foreign and security policies," says Robert Hunter, the US ambassador to NATO. "The more the European allies help themselves, the more Congress is likely to pay for transatlantic defense."
It appears that the US, like European governments, recognizes that the defense of Europe is in a transition that must be carefully managed. British officials are careful to stress that WEU should not be seen as - or encouraged to become - a rival to NATO.
Although it is possible to spot what Moisi calls "growth points" in collective European defense - such as the formation two years ago of a "Eurocorps" consisting of French, German, Spanish, and Belgian troops - he thinks such developments have "a stronger symbolic rather than practical flavor."
In an emergency, he points out, the Eurocorps would be led by the Supreme Allied Commander Europe and would be indistinguishable from a NATO force.
The same point has been underscored by the German commander of the Eurocorps. Gen. Helmut Willman concedes that his unit would be required to work closely with NATO. "There is no doubt about NATO being indispensable for security and stability in Europe," he told a London conference last year.
But bitter memories of war can arise to hamper cooperation. Last year on July 14, France's Bastille Day, German soldiers in armored cars were invited to drive down the Champs-lysees in Paris - the very spot where Hitler's triumphant Nazis paraded half a century earlier.
But when British Prime Minister John Major suggested that troops of the Bundeswehr might be invited to attend this year's V-E Day celebrations in London on May 8, protests across the political spectrum forced Mr. Major to drop the idea.
There are nonetheless a growing number of instances of deepening European cooperation on defense. In May, WEU members agreed that France, Italy, Portugal, and Spain should try to coordinate land and sea operations on Europe's Mediterranean flank.
Germany's Supreme Court has ruled that in the future the country's armed forces could be deployed beyond the NATO area.
Cooperation on nukes
Officials are even discussing closer Anglo-French cooperation on the deployment and production of nuclear weapons. "That is something we are continuing to look at. It should not be ruled out," an official at France's defense ministry said.
In Bosnia, British and French troops have worked harmoniously, and a London defense ministry planner says: "The new Rapid Reaction Force now taking shape will be a further opportunity for France and Britain to cooperate. We are highly optimistic."
But Eyl remains skeptical. The Eurocorps and the new joint regional command planned for the Mediterranean, he says, "simply repackage the dwindling military resources at Europe's disposal."
What would it take to accelerate moves towards an authentic European defense effort and produce the kind of progress the Maastricht Treaty envisages?
In London, Colonel Duncan imagines that a US decision to abandon Europe - something he "cannot envisage" - might do the trick.
In Paris, Moisi thinks the one development that would "galvanize Europeans into effective joint action" would be all-out war in the Balkans.
"If the present fighting in the former Yugoslavia were to spread beyond current limits and turn into a major struggle," he says, "Europe would have to act collectively, because then it would be a European war."
Fortunately, Moisi says, things so far are not bad enough for a "big-bang approach" to European security to be either necessary or possible. "Ironically, the kind of emergency that would generate unity is the kind of emergency we don't want."