WASHINGTON — With less than two years left in power, the Clinton administration is seeking to forge a "super partnership" with Europe to deal with the complexities of the post-Cold War era.
According to senior administration officials, the effort is nothing less than an attempt to construct a new strategic framework for the United States. It would build on Washington's existing ties with Europe to develop broader cooperation--politically, economically and militarily--to tackle problems not just in Europe, but beyond.
"We believe the alliance between the United States and Europe was always more than an anti-Soviet alliance," Deputy National Security Advisor James Steinberg said. "It was always going to be an important partner to go after common objectives in a post-Cold War world."
For the United States, the envisioned change is fundamental--a transition from protecting Europeans against a giant Communist foe to working with them as a strategic partner to tackle new, more disparate threats, possibly even outside Europe.
The new vision presents both sides with daunting challenges.
Many European countries are both reluctant and, at least for now, unprepared for such a partnership. These nations are especially wary of being dragooned into costly military commitments outside the region.
Aware of such sensitivities, when administration officials discuss operations beyond Europe, they talk more about partnering with the European Union than with NATO to tackle far-flung issues such as protecting fragile democracies in Africa or coordinating relief efforts for victims of tropical storm Mitch in Central America.
The United States must also adjust if this vision is to work. It must learn to accept the Europeans as equals, not second-rate partners, as many serving within the NATO alliance have been made to feel.
"The weakness of the Americans is that they cannot play very well [within international] organizations," summed up one senior member of NATO's international staff in Brussels. "They have difficulties accepting that sometimes decisions . . . don't go the American way. Then they have problems accepting them and following through."
The challenges are only complicated by new tensions in Euro-American relations resulting from minor, but damaging, trade disputes involving bananas, beef hormones and aircraft engines, plus a bitterness in Europe at the acquittal by a U.S. military court of a Marine pilot whose aircraft severed a ski gondola cable in Italy last year, killing 19 vacationers and the operator.
Still, one part of the administration's new framework is scheduled to fall into place today, when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright travels to Independence, Mo., for a ceremony at the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum to welcome Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
The ceremony will complete the first step in President Clinton's controversial initiative to enlarge and reshape an alliance that critics insist should not be expanded--but rather dissolved as a Cold War relic.
However, the event has larger meaning, as hinted by the choice of backdrop: the Truman library, repository of the late president's papers and those of his secretary of State, Dean Acheson. Truman and Acheson presided over the birth of NATO in 1949 and also implemented the strategy of containment that lasted for nearly half a century before it eventually led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Those dealing with European affairs at the State Department sense that they too are crafting policies, apparently at Albright's urging, that will shape Washington's actions abroad for decades to come.
"I know [Albright] feels strongly that, just as Truman and Acheson in their generation faced a huge challenge after World War II, so does her generation today face its own challenge, which is to forge this broader Euro-American partnership for the future," said a senior State Department official who declined to be identified.
It is a theme that Clinton first touched on briefly during a speech in Berlin in May and that was expanded upon in subsequent comments by Albright and Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott.
"The message we're sending both the American and European public is that the purpose of the U.S. presence in Europe has changed," said Ronald Asmus, deputy assistant secretary of State for European affairs. "We're not there for Europe, but with Europe, as part of a broader partnership where we do things together."
Clinton has frequently been criticized for his failure to build a new strategy for the United States to deal with the very different, yet still dangerous, post-Cold War era. It is a failure, critics say, that has left Washington often unprepared, lurching from crisis to crisis.
In part, today's ceremony in Missouri is merely the overture for a series of steps planned in coming months that U.S. officials hope will enable Clinton personally to nudge this larger partnership with Europe closer to reality.