- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 13, 2000

"Good sense and good nature must forever join." So British poet Alexander Pope wrote in his "Essay on Man." Somehow echoes of that phrase kept coming to mind, mostly by their absence, as discussions went on in Nice last weekend about a future military force of Europeans to deal with ethnic crises and humanitarian emergencies on their own continent.

Eminently reasonable as this idea may seem, tempers flared all around. French national pride was on display, the London tabloids went berserk over Tony Blair's role, the Turks sulked and there were the obligatory befuddled signals from the Americans, who again managed to be on both sides of the issue. Such squabbling among old allies. The above mentioned writer in the same poem over 200 years ago also called man "a being darkly wise and rudely great" and he would have found plenty of evidence thereof at Nice.

The most recent impetus for discussions of a European defense force (attempts at which go back far enough to predate the North Atlantic Treaty Organization), was the Balkan wars. They illustrated in the most embarrassing way the state of European military capabilities. The EU failed miserably to deal with the Bosnia crisis until the Americans got involved in 1995, and the bombing of Kosovo, for which the U.S. Air Force was almost solely responsible, provided a painful moment of truth. Subsequently, it was only natural and necessary for Europe to engage in a serious defense debate. The EU was starting to look like a very large head, full of airy thoughts of political union, on a tiny unmuscular body.

The fight last week even broke out before the heads of the EU countries (plus some aspirant members) arrived at Nice to discuss crucial constitutional issues in preparation for EU enlargement. Some 18 months of negotiations had finally yielded a blueprint for a European Security and Defense Policy, to include a 60,000-man force ready by 2003. It would have the capability of deployment at 60-days notice, a mission duration of up to one year, and a decision-making body in Brussels headed by former NATO secretary general and current European foreign policy czar Javier Solana.

True to form, French President Jacques Chirac, who never passes up an opportunity to irritate the Americans if he can help it, insisted that the force be independent of NATO an organization led by the United States and from which France disengaged itself militarily in 1966 under Gen. Charles de Gaulle. Since most of the assets of the proposed rapid reaction force would have to be shared with NATO (because overwhelmingly the same countries will be participating in both), close coordination is inevitable. Yet Mr. Chirac, playing to domestic audiences, opined that "planning and implementation" ought to be "independent" of NATO.

This elicited a rare broadside from U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen, who said that "the United States is strongly committed to NATO as an institution, but much will depend upon … the Europeans." While having been an enthusiastic supporter of the rapid-reaction force concept, Mr. Cohen tried to apply the brakes in a display of typical American ambivalence. After complaining for decades about the inadequacy of the European pillar of NATO, Americans now look with alarm and suspicion at this new defense initiative which they fear will cause a rift within NATO. (And if it were all up to the French, it most certainly would.)

Eventually, cooler heads in the shape of the British government prevailed. Prime Minister Tony Blair took on Mr. Chirac at Nice, with the result that the summit communiqu asserted that "NATO remains the basis of the collective defense of its members and will continue to play an important role in crisis management."

In a particularly ironic twist, only two months ago, President-elect George W. Bush's foreign policy adviser, Condoleezza Rice, suggested in an interview with the New York Times that Mr. Bush might eventually pull the 5,200 U.S. troops out of the Balkans, leaving Europeans to keep the peace there. One might have thought that the Europeans, whose troops already outnumber the Americans in Bosnia and Kosovo, would leap at the chance to show their mettle. But one would be wrong. Instead, howls of protest rose from Europe's capitals, charging that the Americans were disengaging from the continent. Vice President and eternal presidential candidate Al Gore went so far as to suggest it could lead to World War III.

Perhaps this peculiar reaction was best analyzed by former British NATO official and Woodrow Wilson Fellow Sir Michael Quinlan, who spoke Friday at the Atlantic Council. "The Europeans will contribute more readily if they know the Americans are there in case something goes wrong," he said.

This may make the Europeans look a tad silly, but if both sides agreed that cooperation, consultation and burden-sharing is essential for the future of the transatlantic relationship, they could stop hyperventilating.

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