LONDON — "When I took over as secretary general two years ago, everyone described this organization as dormant," said Willem van Eekelen, breaking into a smile in his London office. "Now, even some Americans seem frightened by it."
The tall, courtly, 60-year-old Dutch official was speaking of the Western European Union (WEU), a grouping whose membership even political specialists have difficulty identifying. (The members are Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Spain and Portugal.)
As its guiding hand, based in a large mansion overlooking the Buckingham Palace gardens, Van Eekelen has been employing his diplomatic skills in forging a role for the WEU in the emerging, post-Cold War European security structure.
Van Eekelen aims to strengthen the WEU by stressing its position as the single defense and security institution representing the European side of the Atlantic Alliance.
In doing so, he readily acknowledges that strengthening the WEU is regarded by Washington--as well as some British and Dutch officials--as possibly detrimental to the well-being of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
"The American attitude," he said, "is that we don't want to be the ally of last resort. We don't want a European military organization that gets into a mess and then asks the U.S. to bail us out. And there's something in that--though I think American fears are exaggerated."
Founded in 1954, WEU has commanded public attention these days because of the insistence of various countries, particularly France, that Europe ought to have its own defense structure. France and Germany have argued that the European Community should have a defense arm as well as wide economic authority.
Critics of a separate European military structure under the WEU charge that it would simply duplicate or borrow from NATO--a bedrock alliance whose value has been proven in keeping the peace in Europe for more than 40 years.
Supporters, however, say that with NATO's role diminishing because of the collapse of the Warsaw Pact forces, Europe must rely more on its own strength. Further, they say, NATO's charter restricts its activities to defense of its 16 members.
"One of NATO's problems," observed Van Eekelen, "is that today every foreseeable conflict will erupt probably out of NATO's area. In the future, we Europeans might wish to take military measures to protect our interests outside NATO's area. Eastern Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa might be such places."
The Gulf conflict was a case in point, according to the WEU leader, and even today WEU-nation ships are involved in maintaining the embargo against Iraq and in mine-clearing operations, as well as providing military support for European forces in Kurdistan.
Both NATO and Washington tend to be circumspect in their comments about the European union.
A NATO official declared: "We have no quarrel with the WEU, and it can play a positive role in acting as the European defense arm," declared a NATO official. "But we would not like to see it take military decisions that might involve NATO--particularly since five of our 16 nations are not members of the WEU."
A U.S. diplomat added: "I think the WEU should be willing to work in concert with NATO. There's no point in having duplicate organizations. But we believe it is up to the Europeans to determine whether they want a security entity--in or out of the EC. So any troops earmarked can be double-hatted. It's just that we wouldn't like to see them going off on an operation on their own that might eventually effect NATO's 16 members."
Given the sensitivity of the current situation, the WEU is treading carefully, attempting to "clarify" exactly what its role will be. Much, no doubt, depends on how NATO evolves. If the U.S. decides to withdraw massive forces from Europe, WEU will probably become stronger. If not, its role remains ambiguous.
Almost any activity would mark a historical step up. Five nations--Britain, Belgium, France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands--formed the predecessor of the WEU, the Brussels Treaty Organization, in 1948, one year before NATO was born. The original membership was expanded and the organization renamed the WEU in 1954.
But as NATO gained influence, WEU slipped deep into the European security background, with semiannual meetings of foreign and defense ministers but no real role.
Van Eekelen took over as secretary general in May, 1989, following a long career in government, politics and diplomacy.
A former Dutch defense minister, and also a minister for European affairs, Van Eekelen is well grounded in the workings of organizations like NATO and the EC. In the late 1960s, he served in the Dutch embassy to NATO and recalled: "I often wondered how the Americans coped with all those different European voices."