US and Europe's mutual malaise

Something is happening offstage. The noise and stress of the new war against terrorism drown out the creaking and cracking in the structure of the US's old alliance. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO, is gripped by the first real internal crisis in its 53-year life. Sour comments fly back and forth across an Atlantic that seems to be growing wider and colder. It's a crying shame.

The split began with the end of the cold war, which removed the existential fear of Soviet attack that held the alliance tightly together. The rift then widened in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, when the Europeans refused to recognize the nature of the Serbian threat. In Bosnia, they stood in the way of counteraction until the United States seized the initiative.

The old saying has it: Might without right is tyranny, right without might is impotence. But over the years military power has become more and more a preferred tool of diplomacy, even replacing it on occasion, despite acknowledgment that political problems are not solved by force. Vietnam, Afghanistan, Panama, Grenada, the Persian Gulf, Somalia, and Central America have seen deep US engagement. Small wonder that armed strength should be the measure of political influence. As US power has grown, that of its allies has declined.

German defense specialist Lothar Rühl paints a pathetic picture, with Britain as an outstanding though small-scale exception. Europe lacks the necessary long-distance reconnaissance, the command-control-communication capability, not to mention strategic sea and air lift. It is deficient in precision-weapons, night-vision, air-refueling, and special-operations forces. NATO can operate out of its European area only under US protection and command as well as with "the massive participation of American troops."

Germany, a keystone in the strategy of the cold war, is a shadow of its former self, having sharply reduced its ground forces and defense budget. Only about half of its Army's infantrymen are equipped with the latest-model rifle. Together with France and the Netherlands, Germany will be moving from conscription to a volunteer army, an administrative upheaval that also costs more money. However, not only is money scarcer in a low-tide economy, all these countries also find that they cannot attract enough volunteers.

Given Germany's military tradition, it speaks volumes that Berlin quickly turned down the invitation to be lead nation in the ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul, a role Britain has played. It would have brought Germany considerable political prestige, but Berlin did not have the funds.

In light of the above, it seems all the more remarkable that the European Union has been working since 1999 to create its own crisis reaction force. Smarting under the reality that Europe is America's poor relation, the EU wants to nip future Yugoslavias in the bud. By 2003, the force is to consist of 60,000 troops under European command, capable of operating out to a distance of 3,600 miles from the heart of Europe. After 16 months, it still exists, but only on paper.

Europe wants to assert itself as a matter of pride. Washington has strong misgivings about the coexistence of two alliances under different management. The EU force would admittedly have to depend on NATO – that is, American – help in heavy lifting. Yet the resources given the force are taken at NATO's expense. The US grumbles that, if it wants to see things done right, it will have to do them alone. Europe scolds US unilateralism and fears being dragged into some Yankee adventure.

This strategic discomfort is unfortunate for more than sentimental reasons. NATO's presence literally saved Europe after 1950. Its charter was invoked for the first time to defend the US after Sept. 11. But it is more than a military instrument. The North Atlantic Treaty admonishes the allies to foster the development of peaceful and friendly international relations, an aspect of special relevance this year when seven Eastern European states receive the NATO membership they seek for their security.

THE mutual malaise calls for more than a pat on the head when President Bush visits Europe in May. It needs a strong course of intimate consultation, appropriate for friends in time of trouble. NATO was historic in anchoring the US in Europe.

Together (and with Canada) they form an Atlantic community that is not an anachronism, but a demonstration to the world of freedom in diversity not shaven by adversity. It would be a tragedy were it undermined by bad temper.

• Richard C. Hottelet was a longtime correspondent for CBS.

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