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One Europe: The Dream of Unity : America From Abroad : Bye-Bye American Pie--and Troops and Power : The Cold War's end has left the Continent more confident and Washington weary of its global burden. The ties that once stretched across the Atlantic are unraveling.

February 04, 1992|TYLER MARSHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BERLIN — For the first time since since President Franklin D. Roosevelt cast aside neutrality and committed the United States to a "lend-lease" aid agreement with Britain in 1940, American power in Europe is in decline.

Despite repeated vows by President George Bush that America will not step back from its global responsibilities, Europeans--especially West Europeans--see a different reality.

For them, America--a nation that gave Western Europe billions for its initial economic revival, then followed it with decades of military protection and enough rock 'n' roll, fast food and Hollywood dreams to change its culture forever--is loosening its ties to the Old World.

At the heart of this perception lie two simple facts: The end of the Cold War has left Europe more confident and America tired of its global burden.

As the rich West European nations move boldly toward greater economic and political unity and take on the lion's share of responsibility both for their own defense and in defusing regional political crises, America has begun turning inward.

The end of European communism, the rise of Japan and dramatic demographic shifts that will make three of every five Americans of non-European descent by the middle of the next century, all work to diminish Europe's once-undisputed priority in U.S. foreign affairs.

In addition, a malaise of pressing domestic crises now preoccupy the American voter as the "Communist threat" in Europe fades into history.

The passing of this threat--which effectively ended with the collapse of last year's military coup in Moscow--removes the single most compelling, politically salable argument that kept America committed to Europe for more than half a century.

"The August, 1991, coup is as fundamental to European-American relations as the Berlin crisis of 1947-48," said Oxford University historian William Wallace in an interview.

Just as Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin's crude attempt to lay siege to the German capital in the late 1940s generated the famous Berlin airlift and an American resolve to defend Europe against Soviet aggression, so has the end of that threat loosened that resolve, Europeans are convinced. "There is no longer a reason for the U.S. to stay," Wallace added.

That message was clear to see last month at a modest ceremony in Frankfurt marking the reduction of U.S. Army troop strength in Germany from four to two divisions. But the signs of American disengagement go far beyond the military parade grounds.

In the biggest single challenge facing post-Cold War Europe, that of achieving a degree of social and political stability in the Soviet Union's successor states, Germany, not the United States, has taken the lead, providing nearly 60% of all Western economic aid to the troubled region since September, 1990. The U.S. has contributed 6%.

Politically, the current Yugoslavia civil war marks the first time since World War II that Europeans, not the Soviets and Americans, have directed efforts to resolve a major regional crisis.

It has been said that the first question on European lips in any crisis was what the Americans thought. But "no one asks that question any more," commented a senior German diplomat.

In a part of the world where burning the Stars and Stripes came close to being a college sport as recently as the mid-1980s, America's declining profile has been met more with a mixture of sadness, concern and inevitability than with any overt celebration.

Indeed, many observers note the irony that America's retreat comes at a time when not a single European nation or influential political voice questions the U.S. presence on the Continent. Instead, Europeans view America as a once proud but now confused and tired nation increasingly paralyzed by its own problems.

For Europeans, the Persian Gulf War was America's last hurrah.

"They feel sorry for us," said Steven Muller, president emeritus of Johns Hopkins University and chairman of the 21st Century Foundation, after a brief visit to Europe last month.

Under the caricature of a worried Uncle Sam and the headline, "Sam, Sam, the Paranoid Man," the British weekly The Economist commented late last month on what it perceived as excessive American worry, noting: "The trouble is that in recent months these fears have become so intensive that they threaten to do real, not imaginary, harm."

For Americans and Europeans alike, the implications of a diminished U.S. role are enormous.

The United States must face the uncomfortable new reality that less involvement means less power and that Europeans now expect to deal with Americans as equals, not as underlings.

"The Americans have to shift from leadership to partnership," said Dominique Moisi, co-director of the French Institute of International Relations in Paris. "They need to let Europeans develop by themselves."

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