Last May, people in the war-torn northern Democratic Republic of the Congo received hope of help from an unexpected source. It came from none less than the European Union (EU). For the first time ever, the EU launched a force of peacekeepers, under the leadership of France. The Congolese got up their hopes of much- needed relief, but given the dearth of manpower and the constraints set by U.N. engagement rules for peacekeepers, the three months’ deployment in the province of Ituri was not exactly a great military milestone.
The announcement of the force in May, however, was made with great elan by French ambassador to the United Nations, Jean Marc de La Sabliere. Speaking before the U.N. Security Council, he said, “We have been asked to lead a multinational force … and France has accepted to lead such a force.”
Eager to prove that Europe can act independently of the United States in military matters, a number of European countries offered cooperation — Sweden, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands and Britain, in addition to several African nations.
But peacekeeping is a lot easier said than done. Congo’s raging wars have claimed around 4.7 million lives over the past decade, and despite a negotiated peace plan, the killing shows little promise of dying down. In fact, the U.N.-sponsored mission of the EU ran into serious trouble almost immediately.
In June, a small contingent of French troops stood by as thousands of terrified Congolese residents of the northeastern capital of Bunia poured into the U.N. compound with a storm of bullets and grenades raining down on them. “No one wants to talk,” complained one French commander, “They want to fight.”
The intervention would have been just one more troubled peacekeeping attempt on the African continent, were it not that it was intended by French leaders to set a precedent with significant symbolic value. A common European defense is aggressively being promoted by a small group of countries within the EU, and it may be embodied in the new EU constitution, currently under negotiation.
Since last April, France, Germany, Belgium and Luxemburg have talked about the establishment of a European military headquarters outside Brussels, with the British government cautiously and skeptically joining in the discussion. Not coincidentally these same countries also opposed the U.S. war in Iraq, and the U.S. government immediately interpreted this as a strategy to undermine U.S.-European defense cooperation through NATO.
This suspicion received confirmation through a German military planning document leaked last week to the press. “A European army legitimized and financed by the European Parliament is the visionary goal of Germany,” it states. According to German planners, even the British and French nuclear forces should be “integrated within the European defense system.”
Now, a common European defense force will not in itself be a security risk for the United States. Nonetheless, the mere idea of an EU military does make American officials go ballistic. U.S. NATO Ambassador Nick Burns called the plans for a EU military headquarters “the most serious threat to the future of NATO.” And Secretary of State Colin Powell is reportedly preparing to travel to Europe in November to stress the seriousness of Americans concerns with EU leaders.
The problem is that too much American heavy-handedness when it comes to European integration will certainly backfire, particularly at this time of turmoil in our political relations. Therefore, framing the case in terms of mutual interests would be the most intelligent course of action for U.S. officials.
When (and if) he goes, Mr. Powell should stress that if Europeans want to preserve the American security guarantees that promise to keep Europe “whole and free,” reassuring Central and Eastern Europeans against instability on their eastern borders, they need to listen to American concerns. NATO has been a great stabilizing force in Europe since its creation after World War II, and NATO is the glue that binds the two continents together politically.
He could also let Europeans know that the United States values NATO as the most important forum in which the United States and Europe both have a seat at the table. As the European Union enlarges and strives towards greater integration, NATO becomes more important for Washington in that sense.
And, Mr. Powell might suggest that if the EU countries seriously want to field international peacekeeping operations — which is indeed among the stated goals of European defense cooperation — American cooperation on logistics and forward projection is invaluable. In other words, if we give the hatchet a rest and work together, much can be achieved.