When Europe and the United States first agreed to cooperate in the defense of Europe after World War II, the main threat was from the Soviet Union to the east.
But as ministers of the 16-member North American Treaty Organization meet tomorrow in Brussels, concerns about how to manage the security of Europe's southern flank along the Mediterranean could loom as large.
These concerns center on a high-profile flap between France and the United States over who should command NATO forces in the Mediterranean, including the US Sixth Fleet. France says it should be a European, and Washington insists that command remain with an American.
If Washington does not change its mind, France says it will remain outside NATO's integrated military command, which it left in 1966. It will also delay other decisions, such as extending NATO membership to Eastern European nations.
Some defense analysts had expected that a face-saving solution to this problem would have been found before the Dec. 10 meeting, but last week French President Jacques Chirac stepped up his demand.
"Europe must put an end to its impotence," he told the parliamentary assembly of the Western European Union (WEU), Europe's defense arm, on Dec. 3.
"There remain, however, certain issues that are vital and difficult to solve, in particular, the Europeanization of the regional commands, for the reform to be brought to a successful conclusion," Mr. Chirac added. France takes on the presidency of the WEU in January.
Longstanding hot button
The Mediterranean command has long been a hot button in French-American relations. The first step in France's 1966 rupture with NATO's military command was its 1959 decision to withdraw the French fleet from NATO command in the Mediterranean. Then French President Charles de Gaulle felt that France deserved more weight in the Mediterranean command structure, which was directed by an American.
"All French presidents since De Gaulle have tried to strike a deal with the US over NATO. In each case, France has had to realize that there are limits to Europe's power," says Frdric Bozo, an expert on French-NATO relations with the Paris-based French Institute of International Relations.
"What interests France is the Mediterranean. France is a middle-range power, but it wants a worldwide policy, and it wants to take Europe along with it," he adds.
With an eye on North Africa
France has been the leading spokesman for a European policy toward the Mediterranean. At French urging, the European Union agreed to earmark $6 billion for the development of North Africa - the first time the EU has made such a substantial investment outside Europe.
Southern European nations, especially France, Italy, and Spain, worry that regional instability, especially due to economic woes or the gains of extremist Islamic groups, could lead to a surge in illegal immigration or terrorism.
Last week's bomb explosion in a Paris subway renewed fears in France of new attacks linked to North African politics.
But France has had less success in bringing other Europeans along in its calls for a greater role in the Mideast peace process. No other European nation has backed such French diplomatic initiatives, which many Europeans see as a bid to compete with the US.
"Basically, the Americans appear to regard the Mediterranean as a spring-board to the Middle East and the Gulf, while European policymakers have the western Mediterranean, especially the Maghreb [Northwest African] countries, uppermost in their minds," says a Nov. 4 report on Mediterranean security by the WEU's political committee.
If Europe wants to play a role in Mideast peace, it will have to find the political will, the report concludes. If they do not, "Europe will never be anything more than a political and military satellite of the [US]."
In the absence of a common European policy on the Mediterranean, a European in charge of NATO's Mediterranean Command would at least be a powerful symbol.
"Symbolically, the [Mediterranean] Command is important for Europe's visibility within the Alliance," says Philip Gordon, senior fellow at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. "A more cynical interpretation is that France is using this issue as a chip to trade for something else, such as NATO's enlargement," he adds.