For years the US has urged its European allies to revamp their military forces and play a greater role in the Continent's security. Kosovo and Bosnia, critics say, are just the latest examples of Europe relying too heavily on American might.
But now that a joint European military identity is closer than ever to forming, officials here are reacting with increasing caution.
"The US has always urged the Europeans to get their acts together," says Lawrence Martin, a global strategy expert for the Center for Strategic and International Studies here. "But they get nervous when it looks like it will happen."
A stronger European defense organization is developing on several parallel tracks. The most significant, perhaps, is the establishment of a foreign and security policy office within the European Union, to be headed by former NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana. Although the office is not a military component, it is seen as a natural precursor to one.
Already a new attitude is visible. The 15-country European Union, formed as an economic alliance, most recently suspended armaments cooperation with Indonesia within 48 hours of the outbreak of the East Timor crisis.
While the US generally supports enhanced European defense, officials are concerned that, if it develops too far, it may take away from their global decisionmaking abilities. And, a European military formation could alienate key US allies in fragile parts of the world, such as Turkey, which is on the outskirts of the Balkans.
"The biggest danger is that the Europeans feel like they can go out and do something on their own, and it doesn't [end up] working," says an administration official speaking on the condition of anonymity. "We could lose support for working with them [in the future]."
The fate of any future European military formation would likely hinge on its relationship with NATO, the 19-member transatlantic alliance that launched air strikes in Yugoslavia and has taken on the unofficial role of European protector.
While NATO was formed after World War II to counter the Soviet Bloc, the EU is an exclusive alliance with the goal of matching US economic power. American officials insist that any European forces complement NATO - and not drain its resources, contradict its mission, or step on any of its members.
"We would not want to see a European Strategic Defense Initiative (ESDI) that comes into being first within NATO, but then grows out of NATO and finally grows away from NATO," said Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott last week. "That would lead to an ESDI that initially duplicates NATO but that could eventually compete with NATO."
Despite the pitfalls, the US stands to gain by having stronger allies in Europe. They would not have to take on as many risky and expensive assignments, and they also could shed their increasingly unpopular image as the world's police force.
"We have a lot of problems in the world to deal with," says the administration official. "It's in our benefit to have a likeminded partner. It reduces our costs, and it conveys more of a sense of political power." The concept of the 15-country European Union having a security and defense identity is not new, but it was cemented this summer at the EU summit in Cologne, France.
The development has been facilitated by an adjustment of British thinking. While the British previously leaned almost exclusively toward the US, they now are putting greater emphasis on working closer with the European Union. The French, the other nuclear power in Europe, are considered to have been willing to develop a more independent military identity all along.
"Now the key issue is whether they will be within or outside NATO," says Steve Larrabee, a researcher for RAND, a California-based think tank.
Another driving force is the likely dissolution of the Western European Union, analysts say. The Western European Union is a 10-member defense alliance within NATO that that has limited military-support abilities. There is speculation that it may be incorporated into the EU.
A louder voice
Finally, analysts say Europe will naturally gain a louder voice in security issues as it gains economic strength. And that trend is likely to feed on itself, since building a military alliance will help the European economies by creating jobs and invigorating defense industries. "As Europe gets more power economically, the US will find it harder to push [it] around," says Mr. Martin of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. But there is still a long way to go before the European Union can develop a military force - and there are still questions as to whether an organization formed on economic issues can build the consensus necessary to undertake security issues.
For one, the European countries are far behind the US militarily. Their defense spending is focused on protecting their own borders - not rapidly projecting power to other parts of the world.
Less defense spending
They lack precision-guided weapons and are considered weak in air-lift operations. And, despite having a combined economy roughly the size of America's, they spend less than half the money the US does on defense.
One problem could come from EU countries that are not in NATO, such as Ireland or Sweden, which have different foreign-policy interests.
Finally, EU interests could conflict with those of NATO countries. Turkey, for instance, has a long rivalry with EU member Greece and is considered to have a sphere of influence in the Balkans - just the place that an EU defense wing would have to closely monitor.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society