A New Era? Europe Tries To Buck US out of Its Saddle


On the battlefield and in the global marketplace, Europeans are testing the cold-war tradition that they must follow the American lead.

For the first time since NATO was set up after World War II, Europeans have demanded - and won at a June 3 meeting in Berlin - the right to conduct their own military operations, using NATO resources. Until now, NATO operations have been directed by an American.

Meanwhile, in Geneva on June 4, the 15-member European Union formally challenged US legislation that would sanction foreign companies investing in nations that the US is trying to isolate, such as Cuba, Iran, and Libya.

Both initiatives challenge US global leadership and signal a growing conviction in Europe that the Continent has its own economic and security concerns that the US may not always share.

The US and Europe have enjoyed close relations since the end of World War II, when US leadership established NATO for the defense of Europe during the cold war as well as the Marshall Plan for its economic recovery.

But many Europeans now fear that the US will pull out of Europe, and are especially concerned about whether they will have the resources to maintain peace in the former Yugoslavia after US troops withdraw in December.

US officials worry that Europe's assertiveness will increase isolationist tendencies in the US Congress at a time when budgets for foreign aid, international organizations, and the maintenance of a US military presence in Europe are under attack.

France led the calls for a stronger European presence within NATO, and threatened to halt recent moves to rejoin NATO's military command if its demands were not met. France pulled out of NATO's military command structure in 1966.

On June 3 in Berlin, French Foreign Minister Herve de Charette praised the "historic" agreement, but French defense officials are wary of how it may be implemented.

"The Clinton administration is very open to a strategic direction for Europe, but more resistance is coming from the military, " says a French official close to the negotiations.

A sticking point could be how much effective control Americans will continue to exercise over NATO-supported operations. In a key last-minute compromise, Americans dropped their insistence on "overseeing" joint-task force operations in favor of a "monitoring" role.

But it is not clear how willing the American military or Congress will be to turn over C-17 transports or sophisticated communications equipment to support missions under European command. Americans also retain the possibility of vetoing any European operation, even if the US declines to join it. Under the terms of this week's agreement, all 16 members of the alliance must agree to approve missions.

American officials insist that it is very unlikely that such a case would ever develop. "We happen to think that if it were a major event, such as a new Bosnia, everyone would want to participate," says a US NATO official.

But French officials say they will continue to push for assurances that Europe will have an independent defense capability within NATO. "We want to know that Europe will be able to intervene on its own," said French Foreign Ministry spokesman Jacques Rummelhardt. If NATO or the US refused approval for such a [European] intervention, he says, it could provoke "a serious crisis."

British diplomats were more reserved in their vision for the new joint task forces. British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind said that he did not see any real possibility that the 10-nation Western European Union could carry out a "serious, combat-related task." And Germans are wary of any move that compromising the US commitment to Europe.

But if divisions remain on how far and fast to push a distinct European presence within NATO, European partners are firmly united in their opposition to the Helms-Burton legislation.

On June 4, at the request of the European Union, the World Trade Organization in Geneva initiated consultations on the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, or Helms-Burton bill, which became US law March 12.

This legislation would allow companies and affiliates allegedly trafficking in expropriated property in Cuba to be sued in US courts. It would also ban officials of such companies, as well as their spouses and minor children, from entering the US.

Related legislation sponsored by Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R) of New York would sanction foreign companies doing business in Iran and Libya.

Letters from Senator D'Amato warning French oil companies Elf Aquitaine and Total of US reprisals if they continue operations in Iran, reported in European newspapers this week, fueled anti-US sentiment.

"Total has been in the Middle East since 1924. We are operating under French and international law," says Total spokesman Regis Gaignault. "We see no link between our activities and terrorism. On the other hand, if you completely isolate a country, you encourage extremism."

US officials insist that they are within their rights to take action against so-called pariah states, and that enforcement of the laws will be done in close consultation with Europeans. "Enforcement will not be retroactive. It will apply to those who expand their operations or start investing now," says a senior US official.

"Congress has passed these laws and they will be implemented," said Joseph Stiglitz, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, defending the Helms-Burton bill at a recent meeting for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris. "The US strongly supports multilateral trade, but it does not cover certain areas. Until it does, we must take unilateral action. We believe that most of what we do will benefit the world more broadly."

European diplomats have criticized the US legislation, however. "No one country has the right to tell companies in another country how they should behave in third countries," Britain's Mr. Rifkind said in Washington May 29. Trade between Europe and Cuba, Iran, and Libya amounts to about $1.8 billion annually.

Britain, along with the US, never recognized the 43-year Arab boycott on firms trading with Israel, a case that is identical to US actions on Cuba, he added.

German diplomats are more concerned about the pending D'Amato bill that would impose sanctions on non-American companies investing in Iran and Libya. Germany is Iran's No. 1 European trading partner, with trade of $205 million in 1995.

"The American policy toward Iran has met worldwide rejection, except for Israel and Uzbekistan," said a German diplomat.

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