Time after time this century, Europe has had to turn to the United States to help fight its wars or keep its peace. This week, European leaders will commit themselves to coping on their own - at least with smaller crises - next century.
At a two-day summit that opens tomorrow in Helsinki, Finland, European Union heads of state will put their names to a plan for a 50,000-man rapid-reaction force that could deal with flare-ups on their doorstep, such as this year's Kosovo crisis.
The multinational unit, part of Europe's efforts to pull its economic weight in the world political arena, would mark the biggest shift of the defense burden from the US to its European allies since World War II.
But the Continent's first independent military force will not be taking the field tomorrow.
"The Europeans are miles away from a credible, independent military capability," says Col. Terry Taylor, an analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank. "There is a long way to go from the idea and the wiring diagram to having the capability to deploy."
The Helsinki summit also is expected to formally accept Turkey's application for EU membership and to open membership negotiations with six new Eastern European countries.
The war in Kosovo revealed just how heavily Europe depends on US forces within NATO to do any fighting needed to ensure the Continent's security. American planes flew the bulk of the bombing runs over Serbia, and NATO forces were almost wholly reliant on the US for heavy transport facilities and intelligence gathering.
"Today Europe wants to play its full role" in European defense, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine said at a seminar here last week. "The European Union as such should be able to intervene with its own means to defend its interests and its values. It should have the will and the capacity to do so."
The new approach, championed by Britain and France with German and Italian support, will speed the shift away from heavy, static, tank-based armies designed to defend Western Europe against invading Soviet troops, toward more mobile, flexible forces that can put out fires on Europe's periphery.
The plan on the table at Helsinki, expected to win support from all 15 EU members, is for a force that could deploy at 60 days's notice and stay in the field for as long as two years, to be ready by 2003 at the latest.
This will not involve recruiting any more soldiers, nor will it mean a standing European army. Rather, soldiers in existing units in European national armies will be given twin assignments - the NATO tasks they have already, and new "Euroforce" duties. They will also have the right to use NATO equipment and other assets, if need be.
There will, however, be a standing headquarters staff, which is likely to be built from the existing HQ of the Eurocorps, a Franco-German unit based in Strasbourg, France. Paris and Berlin offered last month to put the Eurocorps HQ staff in charge of the Kosovo peacekeeping force next year, but NATO has not yet taken up the proposal.
The Europeans have been careful to assuage US fears that their ambitions might undermine NATO. Washington's doubts surfaced publicly in October, when Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott worried that Europe's defense plans could "imply that Europe's default position would be to act outside the [NATO] alliance whenever possible, rather than through the alliance."
EU officials have insisted repeatedly that the force they envision would be used only on those occasions when Washington did not feel its interests sufficiently threatened to want to get involved, as when government authority collapsed in Albania in 1997.
"In the transatlantic alliance we don't have too much America, we have too little Europe," German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping has said on several occasions over the past few weeks.
Washington now seems convinced. At a NATO meeting in Brussels last week, US Defense Secretary William Cohen told reporters that "there is no ground for this speculation that somehow this is leading to a division between Europe and the United States."
The mixed US messages have been "regrettable," says Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "On the one hand we want our allies to do more and to spend more, but at the same time we worry about how much they might distance themselves from us in doing so. We should just say 'go for it'," he says.
Certainly, Mr. Cohen has been encouraging European nations to spend more on defense.
European defense spending accounts for an average of 2.1 percent of gross domestic product, compared with US outlays of 3.2 percent. And in real terms, European NATO countries have slashed their military spending by 22 percent since 1992.
It is this that could slow down European plans to streamline their forces, making them more mobile and more easily adaptable to a unified force, experts warn. Although no huge expenditure will be required, reconfiguring Europe's armies will cost money, and defense budgets are static at best across the Continent.
"I see no money in the pot for any new resources," says military analyst Colonel Taylor. "There will be a lot of scratching of heads over where the money is going to come from to pay for these plans."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society