- The Washington Times - Monday, December 18, 2000

The question sounds ridiculous. It’s not. Ever since the USSR folded, and the Balkan mess notwithstanding, Europe’s centrality to American security and prosperity has slowly faded from public consciousness. Indeed, much of what passes for general European reportage nowadays seems little more than a shallow mix of Schadenfreude and bemusement tales of falling Euros and rising racism, of rightist revivals and leftist advances.

Occasionally, however, the Old World can still get the New One riled.

Current example: The European Union’s (EU) efforts toward creation of a Rapid Reaction Force (RRF) that would operate more or less outside of NATO America’s response. After all these decades of hectoring them to take more responsibility for their own security … how dare they?

The story goes back to 1991, when the Treaty of Maastricht morphed the old European Economic Community (EEC) into the EU, a political as well as an economic entity that would develop a Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). That same year, NATO revised its Strategic Concept to acknowledge a range of potential missions beyond collective territorial defense. In 1994, NATO accepted the notion that the EU should develop an ESDI, a European Security and Defense Identity.

For most of the rest of the decade, the EU/RRF initiative generated little more than acronyms. Member countries were engaged in prolonged national military reassessments, in moving away from conscription, and in physical and fiscal downsizing. Also, the French were acting like the French, the Brits like the Brits, the Germans like the Germans. Then the various Balkan operations revealed how taxing even minor contingencies can be, while the Kosovo bombing campaign underscored the near totality of European dependence on American power. The EU’s membership concluded that, for a variety of reasons (British reasons are rarely French reasons are rarely German reasons), this situation had to change, at least a little.

The immediate goal: A force 60,000 strong by 2003, that can deploy out to 1,500 kilometers within two months and remain on-site for a year; not a full combat force, but one capable of sustained and energetic peace-keeping, peace-enforcing, and other missions. In November, EU members pledged a total of 100,000 troops, 400 planes, and 100 ships. Fifteen non-EU members, including Norway, Iceland, and (awkwardly) Turkey and various East European nations, have offered contributions of their own.

In theory, America approves. The Pentagon’s new “Strengthening Transatlantic Security” white paper states: “The United States welcomes European efforts to increase their contribution to collective defense and crisis response operations within NATO and build a capability to act militarily under the EU where NATO as a whole is not engaged. These efforts are part of Europe’s longstanding and natural trend toward greater cooperation and deeper union … we are prepared to adapt ourselves in the future to work with stronger, more versatile, and more united European partners.”

Fine words. But at the Dec. 5 NATO ministerial, U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen threw a virtual hissy fit, declaring that “there will be no EU caucus in NATO,” warning that NATO could become a “relic if an EU force formed, and demanding unity in the alliance.” Read here: Total American dominance?

Does the EU initiative endanger NATO, as Mr. Cohen and a growing chunk of the punditry argue? No way. This would not be a standing force; the troops would be available to NATO for major emergencies. Much of its operational planning would have to be done, as Mr. Cohen demanded, within NATO. Much of its doctrine would reflect NATO and American thinking. The force would still depend on NATO and U.S. intelligence and communications capabilities. It would be used primarily to alleviate American commitments and strains, and when political or other considerations prevent NATO’s 19 members (headed toward 30) from acting with the requisite unanimity.

Would this force be the start of A Europe That Can Say No? Perhaps someday it might seem thus. But Europe already has many ways of saying no, not least among them the withholding of the unanimity necessary for NATO to go to war … or having your planes develop engine trouble when you don’t like the mission or the target list. Put differently: Is it possible to conceive of any major situation where the EU would act in direct defiance of American wishes? Where? Why? How? And toward what end?

Nothing comes to mind.

In sum, the proposed EU force strengthens the West for the foreseeable future. It also moves Europe toward fuller partnership in the daunting task of figuring out 21st century warfare. We’ll learn from them. But it’s important for another, greater reason, not necessarily to America’s liking.

It is probable that, just as nation-states and grand alliances dominated the 20th-century, regional arrangements economic, political, cultural, military will dominate the 21st. The World’s Only Superpower will have to deal with these complex, evolving, powerful entities on terms that will inevitably tend toward a fractious equality. And while a few great issues dominated the 20th-century, a plethora of smaller ones may define the 21st. Can a solitary and imperious America, regardless of its might, maintain an effective long-term military relationship with a region as diverse and dynamic as Europe, in a world of self-organizing regions and the power and problems they generate?

And how might it change us to try?

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