As expected, the European Union’s leaders, meeting in Helsinki over the weekend, approved the creation of a 60,000-troop rapid reaction force, designed to act independently of NATO. This decision follows an unprecedented meeting of the EU’s foreign and defense ministers, which appointed Javier Solana (formerly NATO secretary general) to head the long-moribund Western European Union, in addition to his new EU position as the impressively named “High Representative for a Common Foreign and Security Policy.” It also follows French President Jacques Chirac’s provocative and openly anti-American speech in the first week of November.
As with many EU decisions, and especially those surrounding the European Security and Defense Identity (“ESDI”), considerable confusion exists as to the exact implications of the Helsinki decision. British Prime Minister Tony Blair tried to calm American concerns by saying, “This is a move entirely complementary to NATO. It’s not against NATO or a substitute for NATO.” In fact, Helsinki effectively reversed the United Kingdom’s longstanding policy against a military role for the European Union. Mr. Blair’s decision, ironically supported by his good friend President Clinton, is a major step “into” Europe for the British, and, if implemented, a major step away from America.
Following Mr. Chirac’s Nov. 4 speech, a senior European diplomat was quoted in the media saying that “this issue could end up driving a stake through the heart of the alliance.” This is really the key point. If all of the recent European moves from the announcement some years ago of a joint “Franco-German” corps, to last year’s St. Malo declaration, to the more recent agitation precipitated by the air campaign against the former Yugoslavia were in fact purely and simply efforts to increase Europe’s contribution to NATO, America would be foolish not to agree. And it is certainly true that many Europeans, not just the Blair government, honestly and in good faith believe that ESDI is not inconsistent with NATO, and is not intended to weaken the alliance.
Of course, if the Europeans really wanted to make a larger contribution to NATO, they would substantially increase their military budgets, in virtually all areas (research and development, procurement and readiness), both in absolute dollar terms and as a percentage of GNP. Unfortunately, not only are they not doing so, but their total budgets, particularly Continental welfare systems, are more squeezed than before because of the effects of European Monetary Union, forcing painful budget restraints in politically popular domestic programs. It should, therefore, come as little surprise that defense budgets are likely to come under even greater downward pressure in the very near future. This fact, uncomfortable for both Europeans and Americans, is perhaps the strongest practical reason not to worry too much (for now, at least) about ESDI: European checkbooks simply will not match the political rhetoric.
But even impecunious budgets cannot obscure the basic political direction of key European leaders. Nor can the good faith of pro-NATO Europeans alter reality, and the reality is that a separate European defense “identity” whether as a “pillar” within NATO, or outside of the alliance, will inevitably change NATO forever, and perhaps eviscerate it. This is an inherent problem of alliance cohesion and management, and not something than can be papered over with the inevitable EU verbiage about architecture. If the Europeans desire and can actually achieve a separate, unified, military capacity, without recourse to the United States which is what many say they want then they have effectively eliminated the rationale for NATO as we have known it. It simply blinks political and military experience not to believe that a European “identity,” within NATO or not, would fundamentally change the relationship between the United States and the Europeans. Mr. Solana himself has said expressly he is aiming for “a new equilibrium between Europe and the United States and Canada.” That is also precisely what Mr. Chirac seeks, to end both American “dominance” of the alliance, and European dependence on U.S. capabilities and technologies.
Europeans are quick to remind Americans that we should not really take the French seriously, and that Mr. Chirac and his colleagues do not speak for all Europeans when, for example, they attack the United States as a “hyperpuissance.” Nonetheless, those closest to us in Europe are under no illusions about what is actually happening. For example, in the United Kingdom, the Conservatives, who have successfully frustrated Mr. Blair’s desire for British membership in EMU, are now beginning to make ESDI an important subject of debate. Shadow Defense Secretary Iain Duncan-Smith recently gave Americans a wake-up call in testimony to the House International Relations Committee, and Mr. Blair is clearly worried enough he has attacked the Tories as “mischievous and misguided” on the issue. Mischievous they might be, but misguided they certainly are not.
All of the responsible presidential candidates favor a strong NATO, but as the 2000 campaign gets under way, the alliance is unmistakably at risk. The candidates should understand that it is precisely the opposite of unilateralism to raise this concern, and to demand that the Europeans face the inherent consequences of enhancing politico-military structures independent of NATO. If the United States fails to take decisive action during the next administration, there is every possibility that within 10 years, NATO will lose its military rationale and its domestic political support here. We might well face the prospect that it is the WEU that is the real alliance, and NATO the appendage, rather than the other way around.