- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 17, 2002

The debate on U.S.-European relations, in Washington and European capitals, reflects building opinion that something fundamental may have changed in our longest and most central foreign policy alliance.

Political commentators have many explanations of what is going on, ranging from diverging values to a growing power gap favoring the United States, American hegemonic unilateralism and Europe's elevation of law over power in international relations.

In fact, one big thing has changed. For a half-century, the U.S. and West Europeans nations were allies in dealing with the threat posed by the then-Soviet Union in Europe. Now, we remain allies, but the central crisis area has shifted out of Europe with the end of the Cold War. Our joint success in securing Europe is cause for satisfaction. But it also means that the rationale for alliance appears less compelling, on both sides of the Atlantic, as the threat to Europe seems less direct and the readiness of Europeans to share the burden of combating external threats less reliable.

In short, we need to shift the trans-Atlantic connection from an alliance about Europe, to one with Europeans, in combating problems that also arise elsewhere and threaten our common interests.

Allied history has been dotted by prior American pleas for European support in external crises that attracted cool replies. In some cases, notably Vietnam (and now Iraq), there were disagreements over policy. In others, especially the Middle East (and now the Palestinian issue), there were differences of interest. But the key point was that NATO was formed to defend Europe against a common enemy. So long as that threat to European security existed, the Alliance thrived, albeit with intermittent disputes.

Americans raised so-called "out of area" issues with Europeans, mainly bilaterally, and out-of-NATO structures. When faced with objections, U.S. officials usually backed off and did what they considered necessary, more or less alone, with occasional support from European or other states sharing our particular goals and concerns (what now is termed "alliances of the willing").

When the Soviet threat disappeared, we were left with an alliance formed to secure a continent which, despite nasty intra-Balkan disputes, was secure from external threat. After deferring to Europe's desire to handle Bosnia (in the words of a European minister, "This is the hour of Europe, not of the United States"), the Clinton administration joined its allies in finally ending the genocide in Bosnia and later worked with the allies in Kosovo.

But the freedom from fear of external attack shifted Europe's focus to building theEuropean Union as a civilized example for other nations committed to the rule of law at home and through multilateral institutions (a "city onthe hill" in the political parlance and practice of the early American republic).

Then came September 11, which the Bush administration correctly identified as a threat to the United States and to its friends and allies around the world.

This menace is a book just-opened, with many chapters lying ahead. Europe reacted with sentiment for its old friend and, for the first time, NATO invoked the common defense commitments in Article V of the Treaty of Washington. But America did not call and decided to handle this huge threat more or less on its own. Europe was offended and earlier talk of U.S. unilateralism revived.

U.S. reluctance to make the war on terrorism a common undertaking derived from two considerations:

First, European forces have been neglected and degraded in deference to perceived higher economic and political priorities, rendering the value of European military collaboration questionable, Second, seized with an urgent threat, U.S. officials were not prepared for an extended diplomatic debate before moving to deal with a clear and present danger. European carping about a cowboy president and use of quotation marks around war on terrorism did not help. Neither did sneering about European manhood from some U.S. quarters.

The protracted debate in the U.N. Security Council further offended some American officials. But this time and diplomatic effort were well spent. The Security Council resolution, following prior congressional approval and the president's strengthened mandate in the midterm elections, afford useful domestic political and international legitimacy for military action which, in any case, is not expected before early next year. Dealing with Iraq with the support of European allies, and the U.N., shows what persistent diplomacy can accomplish.

But the core issue remains. What is to be the future of an alliance whose rationale defending Europe has significantly changed? Continued European moralizing about U.S. hegemonic unilateralism, and U.S. indifference to Europe's concerns and potential, will augur badly for the alliance and could lead other allied leaders to yield to the electoral temptations that have disrupted our relations with Germany, our most salient European ally whose strategic position was at the core of the Cold War.

The answer is clear enough and, in the first instance is one of political principle. Europe must decide if it wants to sustain its security alliance with America. If it does, this will mean collaboration in dealing with external threats out of Europe. This will not mean saluting every time America is ready to march. Nor will it require subordinating European construction. But it will mean common positions on external threats, strengthening European rapid-reaction forces and a willingness to use them alongside an American ally. These steps are perfectly doable and several European allies, including France, seem ready to move in this direction. We could help elicit such progress by taking the time to treat Europeans as serious partners, listening to their concerns and encouraging their cooperation.

If this happens, Washington will regain interest in an alliance that will remain relevant to the new challenges facing us in the 21st century. If it does not, we will increasingly follow hopefully parallel but different paths.

Serious private talks along these lines would be a worthy purpose of the upcoming Prague NATO Summit.

Philip S. Kaplan, a former U.S. ambassador and policy planner, now is a partner in the Washington law firm of Patton Boggs.

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