Over the weekend, in his first trip to Europe as the new administration's Defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld fired two warning shots loud and clear in European capitals.
The first one was a pledge that the United States, despite objections from abroad, will proceed with a national missile defense that "should be of concern to no one, save those who would threaten others." Somewhat surprisingly, European leaders have begun to accept grudgingly that missile defense will occur.
The second warning was that Europe's attempt to build an autonomous military capability might cause serious fissures between the US and Europe. While largely ignored by the US media, this issue is likely to cause long-term transatlantic friction.
As one high-level European diplomat remarked privately over the weekend, "The creation of a European defense identity is one of the most significant threats to NATO since its establishment in the 1940s."
On the US side, Mr. Rumsfeld noted in Munich that he was "a little worried" about the possible destabilization of NATO. Sen. John McCain, a tad more blunt, said European Union actions were a "worrisome response" to concerns about US isolationism and were causing "unneeded acrimony with the alliance."
Motivated by an inability to act independently of the US in such recent crises as Bosnia and Kosovo, European leaders have increasingly pushed for the creation of a rapid-reaction force that can act autonomously of NATO. Despite initial reluctance, the British decision to sign on in 1998 was a pivotal jump-starter.
By 2003, as currently envisioned, European countries will be able to deploy a rapid-reaction force of up to 60,000 troops capable of fully deploying within 60 days and sustainable for a year. The range of potential missions includes conflict-prevention, humanitarian, and crisis-management operations.
Though the US has long complained that Europe has no telephone number to call during a foreign-policy crisis, US policymakers have been deeply concerned about the implications of an autonomous European defense capability force.
"Duplication" is one concern. In their zeal to produce structures and institutions to make a European defense capability more effective, the Europeans could divert scarce resources and political will away from NATO. As Rumsfeld made clear over the weekend, NATO has been the bedrock of European security over the past 50 years. Creating an additional independent military force undermines NATO's raison d'etre.
"Our major question to the Europeans is: When it comes down to using force, why can't you do it through NATO?" a senior State Department official in Europe remarked last week.
This sentiment extends beyond the US. Turkey, a member of NATO but not of the EU, opposes a European defense capability because it would be excluded from decisions affecting European security. It's responded by vetoing links between NATO and EU structures for managing the rapid-reaction force.
European leaders have publicly tried to reassure their American counterparts that Europe's defense capability will not lead to rivalry between the EU and NATO, but they are committed to moving forward. "The European process will continue," notes Joschka Fischer, the German foreign minister. "It will not be stopped."
US policymakers have admittedly put themselves in a bind. They have publicly and privately urged European states to bolster their joint military capabilities after Bosnia and Kosovo. Yet they insist that European collaboration remain under the NATO umbrella, where the US still exerts predominant influence.
While it's unclear how successful Europe's attempt to build an autonomous defense capability will be, or how it will affect NATO, the Bush administration is walking a delicate line. Too much zeal to keep Europeans in NATO, where the US wields power, may ultimately convince European leaders to create an autonomous military force.
Seth G. Jones is a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society