- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 8, 2002

The war in Afghanistan has opened the door to a vigorous debate about NATO's purpose and U.S. strategic interest in Europe. America's response to the September 11 attacks marked a shift in U.S. attention and resources to other parts of the world. Are our European allies of diminished importance to U.S. interests? There is a strong case to make that the United States must remain fully engaged in Europe.
Our most important political allies are in Europe. They are our principal trading partners, share common values and traditions, and provide the hard assets of military forces and military bases that can help to secure U.S. interests in the European region. The United States is now rightly driving NATO to embrace policies that protect U.S. and European global interests.
In the view of many Europeans, there has been an element of pick-and-choose in Washington's European policy-making during the past decade. Some of the U.S. officials who supported the last round of NATO enlargement opposed U.S. involvement in the Balkans. And some of the officials who backed both enlargement and involvement in the Balkans decried a European Union security and defense policy because it might "rival NATO," or undermine U.S. influence on the continent. But NATO enlargement, the Kosovo war, Balkans peace operations and the EU's effort to build stronger political and security institutions have all served the same goal: European stability.
Today, the stakes for U.S. engagement in Europe are clearly higher.
There is a new relationship between the United States and our European allies and Russia. It is driven by the reminder of September 11 that we face common threats that demand coordinated responses. It must be said that Russia's relevance to U.S. interests in this conflict is of greater importance than that of our European allies. The United States should use its leverage to induce Russia to abandon policies detrimental to the alliance. The emerging NATO-Russia Council should solidify a Russian commitment to Western values and interests even after Russian President Vladimir Putin is gone.
The administration's decision to carry the burden in Afghanistan, including its newly found interest in developing greater cooperation with Russia, must not undermine Washington's long-held policy of standing by Europe. Many U.S. policy-makers wish to extend NATO's original mission of collective defense, once intended to contain the Soviet Union, to combat proliferation, fight terrorism and ensure the flow of oil well beyond Europe. The United States is a global power, with a global view of threats that our European allies have not shared until Afghanistan. The military option is high on the American list for dealing with adversaries. Previously low on the Europeans' list, they have now awakened.
Europeans do not have the military capability for a mission of collective defense distant from the NATO treaty area. We do have such a capability. We have demonstrated the will to use it in the past and we are using it in Afghanistan. With the possible exception of Britain and France, the allies that assisted the United States in the 1991 Gulf War cannot in 2001 project their forces into the Middle East and South Asia, nor are many of those forces sufficiently trained and equipped for high-intensity conflict. Today, the European forces may not even be able to quell ethnic conflict. They may be able to enforce a peace settlement or, as in Macedonia, nascent ethnic conflict. But only the United States can supply the leadership to forge a coalition to win a war, as in Afghanistan.
Yet there is a gap between the administration's political rhetoric and the reality of the allies' military contribution. At NATO's annual winter heads-of-state ministerial in Brussels, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said: "So the suggestion that NATO has been kept on the sidelines is not an accurate one. NATO was right there at the very beginning with the offer of its capabilities. And then we had the option, the pleasant option, of choosing from that menu that was provided and all that capability that was made available to us by NATO."
But in fact, NATO's military relevance is very much at issue. The Afghan conflict has brought to the fore the need for an allied response to threats well beyond Europe and has demonstrated the distance between U.S. and European capabilities. To note, NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson said at last month's NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels that "major deficiencies and major shorftalls" exist in the defense spending among NATO allies.
At the same time, the political value of NATO remains. France alone in the alliance was able to persuade Algeria and Tunisia to cooperate in the pursuit of terrorists from their soil. There is an imperative for the allies to develop mobile forces comparable to the United States.
Other important allied interests remain and should not be forgotten, such as NATO enlargement. The Bush administration, and the Clinton administration before it, have supported NATO enlargement as a means to build stability by ensuring the leavening of new democracies in Central Europe. And reluctantly, the two administrations ultimately came to the conclusion that there must be some U.S. political, as well as military, role in settling conflict in the Balkans. Both NATO enlargement and Balkans peace operations are the essence of "collective security," a phrase that was anathema on Capitol Hill during the last enlargement debate.
While a range of issues such as European criticism of the death penalty and the administration's position on the Kyoto Treaty has caused tensions in allied relations, Washington is placing higher value on traditional strategic perspectives, such as NATO's military capability that defends against post-Cold War threats. At the same time, we should heed the allies' demand to avoid unilateralism. All the allies, including prickly France, accept that a strong U.S. role is desirable, and now see the value of NATO that can act far beyond the treaty area. This sentiment is apparent in every allied capital.
U.S. leadership in Europe will not wither away if we nurture it and do not abuse it.

Jessica Fugate is a research associate for European studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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