When George Robertson takes over as the next secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization this autumn, he vows to slash the size of Europe's armies and make the remaining troops more mobile and better armed.
The recent wars in the former Yugoslavia make the task urgent. Both Bosnia and Kosovo revealed Europe's severe military shortcomings. American aircraft conducted the vast majority of the attacks because Europe lacked sufficient planes and precision-guided missiles to do the job.
"Too many European armed forces are still structured to meet the requirements of the cold war rather than of the next millennium," Robertson told a conference in London Sept. 8.
About 2 million soldiers make up European armies, compared with only 1.3 million in US forces. But Europe's defenses are still designed to ward off a Soviet massive attack in Central Europe, and few troops can be deployed effectively outside their home countries.
"There isn't a shortage of money spent on defense among European allies," Robertson says. "But the way we spend it" has to be reshaped.
The Britain model
Robertson carried out this exact policy as British defense secretary. France is moving down the same road. And Germany and the Netherlands are in the midst of defense reviews. In December, London and Paris agreed that Europe "must have the capacity for autonomous action, backed up by credible military forces." This cooperation could mean dramatic change for the rest of Europe's armies - and NATO.
"These reviews represent a potential revolution," says Wim van Eekelen, former Dutch minister of defense and secretary-general of the Western European Union. "For the first time, Europeans would be able to transport troops and sustain them outside Western Europe."
In another Balkans conflict, for example, he says the Europeans might be able to act without American approval.
Both Europeans and Americans have welcomed Robertson's appointment. He succeeds Spain's Javiar Solana, who will become the European Union's foreign- and security-policy supremo. NATO officials say the date of the passage of powers has not yet been set, but probably will be in October.
Traditionally, Washington has expressed mixed emotions about letting Europe flex too many muscles. The US long has pressured its allies to carry more of the defense burden. Both the Bush and Clinton administrations wanted Europe to take the lead in calming the crises in the Balkans.
At the same time, there are limits to transatlantic cooperation. Many in Europe would like to restructure their military industries and merge American and European companies. But the Pentagon remains wary of giving the Europeans too large a defense role: It recently blocked a bid by German firm Dasa to take over Northrop, which owns the radar-evading stealth technology.
Some Washington policymakers even worry that a more united, stronger Europe could turn anti-American. Europe's adoption of a single currency and its expressed goal of forging a common foreign policy could make the Continent into a prickly counterweight to the US, according to Peter Rodman, director of National Security Programs at the Nixon Center.
In a bid possibly to prevent a "Fortress Europe," the US is expected today to ask Britain to collaborate on developing an advanced medium-range air-to-air missile manufactured by Raytheon in the US.
Bid to calm US
Mr. Rodman's strategy to calm American fears is to propose a bargain: European soldiers acting as police on the ground as US aircraft protect them above. Such a division of responsibility already seems to be taking shape. In Bosnia and Kosovo, Europeans account for more than two-thirds of the peacekeeping forces.
"Robertson realizes that the Europeans will provide most of the troops for peacekeeping operations in their backyard and that Europe will have to pay for most of the reconstruction of the Balkans," says Charles Radcliffe, of the International Crisis Group. The Brussels-based think tank published several reports on the Balkans. "But Robertson is realistic and sensitive enough to make sure the Americans don't feel they are pushed out of the operation."
Robertson's British nationality soothes American fears of a European betrayal, and he has built up strong personal ties to US Secretary of Defense William Cohen. At the same time, Europeans trust Robertson as a forceful advocate of a stronger continental voice in NATO. "Robertson is the perfect man to retain the transatlantic link while building up the European defense identity," Mr. van Eekelen says.
Europe's fragmented defense industries also must be overhauled, experts say. The Continent still has half a dozen tank producers, for example, compared with only one in the US. But since the beginning of the year, British Aerospace has taken over GEC-Marconi's defense activities, while France's Aerospatiale, which includes Dassault, has merged with Matra.
"After years of doing nothing, we're finally seeing some dramatic movement to rationalize the European military industries," says Frdrique Sachwald, a military affairs specialist at the Institut Franais des Relations Internationales in Paris.
A final danger will be mollifying the prickly Russians. Moscow broke off relations with NATO after the bombing in Kosovo and Russian troops angered NATO generals by rushing into the province before them. "I think we have to iron out some of the misconceptions that some Russians have about NATO's motives over Kosovo," admits Robertson. "It is very important to make it clear that we are not there as some sort of marching station toward the Russian border, that we did it for humanitarian purposes."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society