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A Mightier Europe Can Only Help the U.S.

March 08, 2001|DANIEL BENJAMIN | Daniel Benjamin, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, was on the National Security Council staff from 1994 to 1999

The Bush administration has changed its tune on the contentious issue of European defense. Despite serious reservations voiced by senior members of President Bush's staff during and after the election, Bush recently declared his support for the European Union's fledgling security and defense policy and its goal of building a military "rapid-reaction force" that can act independently of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO.

Those sentiments, expressed after Bush met with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, were later echoed by Bush's secretary of State, Colin Powell, during his meeting with European counterparts in Brussels.

The expressions of approval made for smart politics. By handing Blair something he can tout as a victory at home, President Bush laid the basis for a strong relationship with the likely winner of Britain's next election. Bush also helped ensure that the U.K. will remain a strong advocate for Atlanticism in the European Union.

Before these developments, Europeans were braced to add their defense aspirations to the lengthening list of issues now bedeviling the trans-Atlantic agenda, including U.S. plans for a missile defense, trade disputes, climate change and the proposed international criminal court. For now, the Bush-Powell charm offensive has allayed at least this one concern.

But will deft politics turn into shrewd policy, or is the issue just being kicked down the road?

Some in the Bush camp have viewed the EU's defense initiative, which calls for creating a 60,000-person force that could be deployed and sustained in the field for a year, as "a dagger at NATO's heart," as John R. Bolton, who two weeks ago was appointed by President Bush to be undersecretary of State, put it.

Yet the menace of a European challenge to the U.S. is a fiction that the administration should lay to rest once and for all. The real threat to NATO and to American security is not a bolder Europe but a passive one.

Although allies on both sides of the Atlantic have harvested peace dividends since the end of the Cold War, European countries, unlike the U.S., have never stopped cutting their defense budgets. Europeans feel little threat at home and are seldom moved by security challenges abroad. Thus, while the U.S. spends 3% of its gross domestic product on defense, Europe spends little more than half that.

Most of Europe's armies are only beginning to move beyond what they were 15 years ago: territorial forces intended to blunt a Soviet attack. Although Britain and France maintain some noteworthy capabilities, if current trends continue, the European side of the alliance as a whole will eventually be more useful for purposes of moral solidarity than for actual joint military operations.

Kosovo proved this all too clearly: With more than 2 million soldiers in uniform, the Europeans struggled to move fewer than 40,000 into the theater. Allied planes flew nearly 40% of the sorties, but America's craft delivered more than 80% of the weapons. Intelligence, air-refueling and precision-guided munitions were almost wholly supplied by the U.S.

That embarrassing performance was the prod for the EU's decision to push ahead on the rapid-reaction force by 2003, a decision that will require a commitment of money that is not yet apparent.

For the U.S., which routinely declares that it does not want to be the global policeman, it is preferable to have its friends strengthen their militaries, both so Europe can handle security challenges that America doesn't want to address, and to ensure better performance the next time NATO has to enter a conflict. For that to happen, the European countries must start building real, modern military capabilities. If EU citizens can be convinced to foot the bill in the name of "building Europe," the U.S. has every reason to applaud.

The EU continues to acknowledge NATO's supremacy. And while it is important that the rapid-reaction force be done the right way--that there be no needless duplication, that planning is coordinated with NATO, that non-EU NATO countries are given appropriate roles--hectoring about a purported continental plot to "decouple" from the alliance can only create exactly the rift between Europe and the U.S. that Americans most want to avoid.

America has long been guided by the principle that democracies have fundamentally convergent interests in peace and security. This is no time to abandon those beliefs.

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