President Clinton apparently enjoyed his whirlwind tour of Europe, but didn't discuss the most important issue facing the continent: America's military role.
A bipartisan coalition of US lawmakers is pushing to bring home the American garrison in Kosovo, yet existing KFOR forces cannot effectively administer Kosovo. Indeed, Jiri Dienstbier, former foreign minister of Czechoslovakia, has told the UN Commission on Human Rights that additional troops are needed to combat Albanian separatists determined to create an independent, Serb-free Kosovo.
The European Security and Defense Identity (ESDI) would seem to be the ideal solution. The Europeans have already taken over formal command of KFOR, providing the Eurocorps - a multinational force made up of German and French units, and a few from other nations - with its first significant operational commitment. And the EU has proposed to eventually create an independent rapid-reaction force of 60,000.
There's no doubt that Europe should enhance its military. On almost every measure - total outlays, percent of GDP, spending per capita - Europe lags far behind the US. Chris Patten, the European Commission member responsible for external relations, estimates that Europe has just 10 to 15 percent of America's practical military capabilities.
Despite periodic US complaints about burden-sharing, this arrangement long satisfied both sides. After the war against Serbia, however, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott chided an English audience, "Many Americans are saying: Never again should the United States have to fly the lion's share of the risky missions in a NATO operation and foot by far the biggest bill."
The Europeans, too, seem appalled by their pitiful performance. Explains Javier Solana, who in October shifted from NATO to the secretary-general of the Western European Union: "To have a good and solid partnership, it has to be more among equals."
Nevertheless, many EU members don't seem serious about the ESDI. German Chancellor Gerhard Schreder has proposed to cut military spending by $10.4 billion through the year 2003. Hungary says that it can't afford to modernize its force.
Europe may eventually have no choice but to act, however. The US demonstrated in East Timor that its willingness to intervene is not infinite.
Even Washington's readiness to babysit Europe could change, especially if NATO's Balkan adventures continue to sour.
Publicly the Clinton administration professes itself to be pleased with the ESDI. Mr. Talbott says: "We are not against it. We are not ambivalent. We are not anxious. We are for it."
The private reaction is quite different, however.
Franois Bujon de l'Estang, France's ambassador to the US, complains of America's "outright hostility."
What bothers Washington is that a well-armed Europe would no longer need the US. From whence comes the threat? Britain, France, and Germany each spend as much or more than Russia on the military. Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia is impoverished and pitiful.
Terrorists may lurk along North Africa's coast, but America's military presence in Europe only makes the Continent a more attractive target.
If the EU creates a rapid-reaction force, it is hard to imagine the Europeans forever remaining satisfied to act as America's assistants.
John Hulsman of the Heritage Foundation proposes a "grand bargain," in which the US gives up decisionmaking authority to the Europeans in exchange for greater European defense contributions. But the result still would be an unsatisfactory halfway measure. Once Europe acquires the ability to act independently, what role is there for the US?
America's vital interest is to prevent any hegemonic power from controlling the European continent. Such a threat no longer exists.
Russia can barely defeat Chechnya. Germany possesses neither the will nor ability to intimidate its neighbors.
Whatever regional rivalries might eventually emerge, pan-European cooperation makes today a very different world from that which gave rise to two world wars earlier this century.
There is, of course, the messy, unfinished business of the cold war, particularly in the Balkans. More distant are a potpourri of conflicts in the Caucasus. Yet none of these are particularly important for the security of Western Europe, let alone America. And modest improvements in European military capabilities would allow the EU states to intervene should they believe the price to be worth paying.
The alternative to a US-dominated NATO is not an isolationist America, but a watchful, wary America ready to play the distant balancer should Europe again be threatened. Even if the Russian Humpty Dumpty eventually reconstituted itself, Washington would have time to react accordingly.
Europe's new defense initiative should spark a serious debate over fundamentals - soon, before another round of NATO expansion. When the world and resulting threat environment change, so should alliances like NATO. It is time for the Europeans to take responsibility for their own defense.
* Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society