Why the U.S. Needs a Stronger Europe

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It was bound to happen. The 15 E.U. leaders who gathered in Nice this week might have thought that the formal ratification of a new, 60,000-strong E.U. military force would come off without a hitch. After all, the United States has generally supported the E.U. initiative, with some reservations — mainly that NATO's authority not be usurped by the new European body. But American enthusiasm has always been halfhearted. And this week the U.S. made its most concerted statement of doubt, when U.S. defense secretary William Cohen told NATO leaders that the administration still believed in the abstract idea of an E.U. force but worried it might render NATO "a relic of the past" in practice. Suddenly it seems open to question as to whether the U.S. will remain committed to the European effort at all.

Euroskeptics hailed the Cohen statement as a sure sign that the consensus behind the European Security and Defense Initiative is crumbling. U.K. conservatives used Cohen's admonitions to attack the Labour government, which has spearheaded the drive for a separate European military entity linked to NATO. Cohen's speech may slow development of ESDI — which, given the stakes and the complexity of the project, isn't such a bad thing. And the American's comments were a welcome riposte to months of diplomatic malfeasance by the French, who have pressured some of NATO's Central European members, who do not belong to the E.U., to still any criticism of ESDI.

On Thursday French President Jacques Chirac insisted that the new force would coordinate with NATO, but "it also has to be independent." Given all that, Americans are understandably grumpy about the European move for autonomy and the potential it has to diminish the U.S. role in Europe. That's because the U.S. is conflicted: many Americans, such as George W. Bush's foreign-policy advisers, want to scale back American commitments abroad. But they don't want American primacy, or Washington's ability to act as first among equals in its dealings with allies, to be compromised.

Well, get over it. American jitters about Europe's new force range from unfounded to downright comic. The idea, for instance, that the E.U. intends to use the rapid reaction force to position itself as a strategic rival to the U.S. is ludicrous. The Europeans will never be able to match the high-tech wizardry of the American military, and none of Europe's national armies have much power to intimidate. If anything, Europe's determination to develop its own collective military body will require E.U. governments to cough up more money to upgrade their capabilities — something Washington has been haranguing its allies to do for years.

Another common criticism surrounds provisions in the ESDI plans that would allow the E.U. to borrow materiel from NATO. But there's a trade off: in exchange for being allowed to use NATO's stuff, the E.U. force would have to submit to NATO's authority about how and where the hardware will be used. What's so threatening about that?

The most fundamental objection to ESDI is the notion that if NATO allows the E.U. to develop its own, separate defense capabilities, then the Atlantic alliance will come to be regarded as a purely American enterprise. "NATO ... will henceforth be seen as 'America's' vehicle in Europe rather than a truly collective defense alliance," the Wall Street Journal Europe declared this week.

The trouble with this argument is that NATO isn't much of a collective defense alliance anymore. By waging war in Kosovo last year, NATO effectively transformed itself from a defense alliance — one designed solely to act in the event that a member state was attacked — into a wider European security body, ready to act if regional stability was under threat. The problem comes when the murky goal of "security" is paramount, missions tend to be ill-defined and drag out military commitments. It's unlikely that the American public would support sending troops into another conflict such as Kosovo on the E.U.'s periphery. And that's precisely the role the E.U. force can play, easing the pressure on NATO to act in situations where the defense of its members is not at stake. Again, it's hard to see how Americans could object to that, given how frequently they complain about Europeans not pulling their weight.

America needs to come to terms with the changing nature of its influence and interests in Europe. Stabilizing the continent and helping European governments to become self-sufficient lay at the heart of American strategy at the beginning of the Cold War. The fact that Europe now seems ready to assume greater responsibility for its own defense is proof that the strategy worked. The U.S. should view ESDI as one of its crowning achievements.