Europe's Not Up in Arms

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When the talk turns to defense, Europe and America can seem less like the proud partners of a half-century than an aged, quarrelsome couple. No subject gets the neuralgia going quite so well: Europeans grouse about America's determination to squash all Euro-innovation. Americans mutter darkly about Continental intrigues to drive the U.S. from Europe and consign history's most successful alliance to the ash heap.

This ritual is set to begin anew in a slightly different key. With the start of its European Union presidency this month, France has signaled that it will push hard to create a European military force that can act independently of nato. Such a force has long been a grail for European leaders, something essential if E.U. citizens are to see "Europe" as more than just an instrument for increasing prosperity.

This time, however, Europe's leaders are galvanized as never before, shamed into action by the experience of Kosovo. Europe boasts almost 2 million men under arms, but struggled to deploy fewer than 50,000 to the Balkans. Europeans flew 20% of the sorties; the bombs and missiles that drove off the Serbs were made in the U.S. and launched mostly by Americans. Dismay at this showing may have passed, but after decades of opposition, Britain has joined the project, changing the calculus entirely.

The result was the "Headline Goal" of December's E.U. summit in Helsinki a force of 60,000 troops that could be dispatched in 60 days and sustained in the field for a year. The deadline on the Headline is 2003. Since Helsinki, committees have formed, but the text under the Headline still needs writing. The hands on the keyboard belong to France, the greatest champion of European defense and one of the few partners with the clout to push others forward.

Should America embrace the Euro-army? Yes. The familiar carping about Europe "decoupling" from the U.S. continues in the corridors at defense planning sessions, but the Clinton administration has recognized that the real peril to the Euro-American alliance is not Europe's potential strength but its weakness. Washington's encouraging voice is rising over the choir of doubters. There are questions: How will this new defense entity connect with nato? What role will non-E.U. nato allies play? What missions will Europe undertake? The 15 committed themselves to "peacemaking," but an armored column could be driven through the vagueness of that term.

But the paramount challenge Europe faces is itself, because while the rhetoric may be strong, budgets are weak. European politicians swear that with combined annual military spending of $166 billion, conversion of these armies from cold war territorial defense into a machine for projecting force far away can be done from existing resources. No one including Europe's generals believes that.

Reorganizing Europe's armies for new tasks will cost money. Equipping them for peacemaking or more modest tasks will cost much more. Europe needs "lift" (transport planes), firepower (precision guided munitions) and the tangle of communications and intelligence hardware essential for any serious mission. Even low estimates run into the tens of billions of euros over many years.

Postwar European governments have never been good at mustering political will for such spending. After two world wars, Europe's citizens remain queasy about military might, and few leaders speak frankly to them about the need to build armies in peacetime. Since 1989, the U.S. harvested its peace dividend and, in the face of Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq again, is pumping spending back up. The trend of European outlays continues downward. The U.S. spends 3.4% of gdp on defense, Europe 1.8%.

Herein lies a threat to the transatlantic alliance greater than any disagreement over missile defense. If the Headline remains only paper, the next time military muscle is needed, the link with the U.S. will be stressed to breaking point. In the cold war, America bemoaned Europe's shortfalls but winked at the imbalance for solidarity's sake. Now, though, the old Europhile caucus is in retirement.

Now, U.S. senators write "conditionality" into legislation meaning, to cite a recent case, that the U.S. will cut funding for Kosovo peacekeeping if Europe doesn't spend every promised euro on the project. The White House beat that back, but the road to the future will be lined with such conditions. When France holds a conference at the end of the year to solicit commitments to the Euro-army, Washington fears this will mean designating existing units for tasks they can already perform declaring victory and going home.

When French President Jacques Chirac unfurled his government's priorities for its E.U. presidency in Berlin recently, Eurodefense stood at the top of the list. But that was two sentences, skated past quickly. Europe's leaders need to start talking to Europe's citizens about Europe's defense.