Reports of NATO's demise are as premature as ever. While analysts continue to brood over how it can survive in the absence of a manifest threat, NATO is not only surviving, but growing and reinventing itself with a newfound vigor. But like all processes of growth and adaptation, this one is not without its share of pain. Today's distinctive challenges -- peaceful enlargement, policy toward Russia, containing ethnic and terrorist violence -- demand a solid transatlantic community and a NATO that can get up and go. As NATO stretches to meet these challenges, it is rediscovering some of the deepest strains within the Atlantic defense community. While it may not be the easiest time to overcome those contradictions, it is high time to try.

The Clinton administration is rightly credited with a more open and inventive U.S. approach to power-sharing and burden-sharing in the North Atlantic alliance. Recent accomplishments include the NATO summit declaration in January 1994, which launched the idea of joint task forces that could be "loaned" out for European-led operations; the Dayton accords on the former Yugoslavia, which restored the allies' unity of political as well as military purpose; and the Berlin NATO ministerial meeting of June 1996, which thrashed out guidelines not just for the joint task forces, but for a reformed NATO structure with clearer European elements.

But in both its deeper sentiments and day-to-day reactions, the U.S. establishment still projects confusion about what it wants out of Europe. On the one hand, there is an American hunger not so much for burden-sharing as burden-shedding. This impulse can translate into an insistence that the Europeans must look after themselves "ready or not," and an implication that Washington will not care how they do it. On the other hand, there is the U.S. insistence not just on leadership but on control of any shared enterprise, which perhaps helps explain why American commentators sometimes treat independent European defense and diplomatic efforts as a threat to be mocked out of existence.

In the broader foreign policy field, Americans criticize Europe's failure to speak with a single voice, and have difficulty taking that voice seriously when it comes from a small state or the European Commission. Washington is still more comfortable doing old-style political deals with the biggest Europeans -- and, not surprisingly, so are the biggest Europeans.

This is not the only factor helping Europeans understand, and to some extent excuse, American ambivalence. The impact of such givens as the limits of congressional thinking on foreign affairs, Washington's interagency difficulties, and the power of the U.S. military-industrial complex is well-known. At a more profound level, the fact that U.S. citizens, unlike most Europeans, have never seen the writ of a supranational political and economic union run across their territory and have never been in an alliance they did not dominate leads to both trivial and fundamental rifts in perception. It helps explain the periodic American obsession with control and fear of commitments. These tendencies tie the body-bags neurosis to the right-wing nightmare of U.N. invaders marching down our streets. The Europeans' radically different experiences mean not just an altered psychology but a different approach to decision-making that is hard for the United States to understand -- and sometimes to tolerate.

Many Europeans are equally impatient with the European Union's latest Inter-Governmental Conference on strengthening the EU. Some are exasperated with the forces, notably in Britain, barring a new quantum leap in integration. Others, not only in Britain, feel this is the worst time to be contemplating radical change or even wasting political energies discussing it. This confusion of opinions, like much of the United States' own introspection, is one symptom of the post-honeymoon mood now gripping the West -- the discomfort of a time when serious adaptation to the new international order can hardly be deferred.

NATIONAL QUANDARIES

Nowhere, perhaps, has this belated adjustment been more boldly attempted than in President Jacques Chirac's France. French defense cuts, the end of French nuclear testing, the phasing out of conscription, the scrapping of previously sacred Franco-German projects, and the trek back to NATO do not signal the surrender of old ambitions so much as the framing of new ones. France now perceives its national interests as being better served from within an alliance where Paris has its hands on both the military and political reins. Balance with Germany can be better achieved by "keeping America in" and keeping Russia at a safe distance -- inter alia through prudent EU and NATO enlargement -- than by immobilizing the Germans in the bearhug of a Franco-German relationship alone.

German acceptance of this realignment is, of course, not automatic. If Bonn's Atlanticists rejoice at France's return to NATO, they also must now contend with France as a powerful rival in NATO's inner policy circle. France's agenda there, particularly its keenness to re-marshal European defense capacities for quick-fire worldwide action, turns the spotlight back on the most sensitive issues of Germany's own military role. Psychologically as well as materially, the old, static, territorial NATO command structure suited Germany well. The ambiguity of the post-reunification honeymoon period has allowed Germany to have and eat all its cakes: good Atlanticist, good European, champion of NATO enlargement, friend of Russia. Now, Chirac's painful choices are reminding Germans of their own to come.

These are not the only national quandaries in the European defense debate. Britain, still at loggerheads with Europe on so many issues, has a strong card to play in its rapidly deployable military assets and its political willingness to use them in European coalitions. At the other end of the spectrum, the new EU members not in NATO -- Finland, Sweden, and Austria -- have sought to join the European defense club and get an equal say in humanitarian deployments without (yet) paying membership dues. Norway, Iceland, and Turkey, all important for defense but excluded from influence in the EU, remain concerned that their exposed strategic positions will be overlooked. Overshadowing all this is the larger European debate about how much "deepening" of the EU's integrated structure is possible before the admission of new Central European members, and whether the future lies with an equal pace of integration for all members or only for a privileged core.

FOUR OPTIONS FOR DEFENSE

Debate at the Inter-Governmental Conference has suggested four options for mobilizing Western Europe's future contribution to defense and security. The first, promoted by Finland and Sweden, envisages the EU explicitly adopting defense goals but limiting these to the humanitarian operations known as the Petersberg tasks -- military-assisted evacuations, peacekeeping, and crisis management under proper international mandate. All EU members, including the four neutral countries, would have equal rights to decide on and take part in these operations. NATO would be left as insurance against any real -- if now remote -- threats to its members' territory. The Western European Union, whose full members all belong to the EU and NATO, would not necessarily disappear. But the WEU’s primary function would be executing the EU's orders.

Publishing such a proposal at all was a significant step for two of Europe's most principled and cautious neutral states. However, while it may suit their interests, blurring the rights between allies and non-allies does not sit well with most members of the European Union. This approach would erode the critical distinction between guaranteed mutual defense and mere political solidarity. In practice, it would mean the Europeans could only launch missions that fit the constitutions and consciences of all 15 member states, including those most removed from NATO. The EU would play good cop while the tough and dirty tasks would be left to the alliance. Where then would be the incentive for NATO to reform itself as a versatile crisis management organization?

The Inter-Governmental Conference is also considering a Franco-German compromise that would link the Finnish-Swedish scenario with the recognition that NATO also can and should be employed for Petersberg-style tasks (the Implementation Force being a prime example). This second option would eventually melt the WEU into the EU, so that the EU could fully and directly exercise its defense vocation. But, like St. Augustine's chastity, this merger is not to be attempted just yet.

For the present, this proposal would allow the European Council, the EU's top political organ, to issue directives for European military actions in concert with diplomatic and economic pressures being brought to bear by the EU. The detailed implementation, however, would still belong to the WEU so that the practicalities could be coordinated with NATO. Meanwhile, the EU's policymaking approach to diplomatic and security affairs would be retooled to prepare it for making tough defense decisions. There would be flexibility for smaller groups of states to launch and carry out initiatives with the passive support of the rest. Starting with the Franco-German Armaments Agency, European defense industry cooperation would be tightened. The various "Euro-forces" would eventually become the core of a comprehensive European force structure.

Cautious and not too disruptive for the alliance in the short term, this approach allows France to focus its military creativity on restyling NATO. But transferring at least some defense decisions to the EU, including the neutrals, evokes many of the same difficulties inherent in the Finnish-Swedish proposal. It also implies that France has not relinquished its vision of Europe as a military power with a distinct role in its own defense. The tension between this vision and France's newfound loyalty to NATO is only one of the contradictions the Franco-German platform manages to span. It also masks the still very different French and German views on the proper scope of national defense activity, as well as broadly divergent views on Europe's right to intervene elsewhere in the world.

That might just be seen as good diplomacy, were it not that such strained compromises stave off the clarifications German security policy so badly needs. As long as such modest formulaic changes can be hailed as progress in European defense, where is the pressure for Germany and, indeed, other states to bear the pain and cost of modernizing their intervention capabilities? If Germany can offer mutually incompatible homage to NATO and an all-powerful EU, what chance is there of identifying the true capacity and needs of either organization?

These and other objections have led Britain to develop a third scenario for European defense. The British plan maximizes European capabilities for action while leaving the institutions very much as they are. Whatever defense goals might be reflected in the new treaty emerging from the Inter-Governmental Conference, the EU could only act on them by requesting -- not ordering -- the WEU do the job in support of EU policies. The decision to act, with its potential life-or-death consequences, would thus be made by full members of the WEU, while the neutrals could opt into deployments (and get an equal operational say) only after this point had been passed. The non-EU European members of NATO would have equally good or better access to WEU coalitions. Europeans would maximize their contribution within NATO so that the new command structure would give them a strong presence and share of leadership in every part of the alliance structure.

Recognizing, however, that European states may sometimes have interests that require action outside NATO, the WEU would be strengthened as an autonomous decision-making center with appropriate organs for politico-military consultation, planning, intelligence-sharing, and so on. It would not need its own standing forces because in many cases it could borrow NATO's joint task forces, or use European headquarters for simpler and smaller tasks. Furthermore, the WEU could initiate missions with no set geographical limits, including police actions, blockades, and operations in close support of the United Nations or relief agencies. The onus would be on all Europeans to share in this planning and to preserve at least some national capacity for crisis management.

This option, though criticized by most Europeans as selling the EU short, is not the most conservative proposal under debate. A fourth option would be to merge European defense completely, not with the EU but with NATO. Since the great bulk of European forces are already pledged to the alliance, why not decide on, launch, and manage independent EU missions within the NATO structure? Many commentators have described such an outcome as not only desirable but inevitable now that France is back in the fold. Yet it is no accident that no ally, including the United States, has officially endorsed this solution. Earlier in history it might have been easier, but today the Europeans have a more conscious political identity, are accustomed to the privacy of their discussions, and are more trenchant about occasional differences with America. The former Yugoslavia has left them in no doubt of why and when they may need to have U.S. forces with them on the ground. But they also want to be free to take their own risks with smaller or more offbeat missions that are uncongenial for the United States and perhaps too delicate for the heavy hand of NATO. On the other side of the Atlantic, some question whether fully separate, deployment-ready European forces could be created inside NATO without sidelining the United States' own role too far. And some question whether EU nations could cooperate in NATO on separate decisions without splitting the alliance into two camps and totally marginalizing Canada and European countries outside the EU. The WEU could still earn its survival by offering an escape from these issues while permitting independent European decision-making.

ATLANTIC COOPERATION

While the Europeans are tying themselves in knots, NATO is preparing for one of its most significant transitions. Timing suggests that the Inter-Governmental Conference may offer its final conclusions just as the alliance is beginning accession talks with new members and probably facing choppy water with Russia. The United States can and should ask the Europeans not to rock the NATO boat unnecessarily, whether by adopting measures that would be divisive across the Atlantic or by setting new obstacles in the way of the Central Europeans' admission. Turning the EU into a defense organization now would offer Russia two bugbears in place of one, complicate the new members' obligations and force requirements, and destroy any possibility of the EU assisting countries left out of NATO by taking them into its own nonmilitary community. These are three good reasons -- aside from the undecided stance of the European neutrals -- for avoiding too large a European leap forward now.

For the longer term, the United States should first accept without ambivalence that in defense, as in other areas, it needs Western Europe to be strong. It must be strong to integrate eastern neighbors, encourage positive developments in Russia, share the burden of crisis management on its own periphery, and create balance rather than conflict with a rising Asia. If the Europeans adopt false measures of strength, if they celebrate purely institutional progress while limiting themselves to the softest good cop options, the United States should vociferously complain. It should not, however, begrudge the Europeans whatever extra motivation for defense they can muster by associating it with the political cause of EU integration or by assuring their people that they can command their own missions when necessary. The United States should not feel it has to belittle Europeans' contributions to justify its own continued leadership. Conversely, Washington must also recognize that exaggerating the defense potential of Europeans as an excuse for prematurely cutting them loose would be a dangerous gamble with America's security.

As long as the United States and Europe need each other, guarantees matter. Absolute mutual assurance gives NATO its character as an integrated organization and makes it an effective support for democracy and wealth creation. It restrains laziness, selfishness, and nationalism. In a Europe whose peripheries are erupting with ethnic violence, this hardly seems the moment to throw away the allies' golden handcuffs. But if the United States is to continue as the largest purveyor of guarantees, it has the right to insist that its European partners do not devalue the commodity.

For its part, Washington must come to accept that a separate European decision-making center for defense, with distinct European forces in NATO it can call upon, is now part of the price for British and French commitment to NATO's renewal -- and the best way to draw German defense further out of its shell. In negotiations on the new NATO structure, the United States will have a perfect right to oppose solutions endangering the integrity of the alliance, just as it can criticize countries who take positions in the Inter-Governmental Conference that conflict with their assurances to NATO. But the United States will not benefit anyone by trying to reverse the spirit or the letter of the Berlin ministerial agreements. Rather, on its current course, America stands to gain a strong and healthy European partner. And the prize is not just good security for the next few years, but the way the European landscape will look when and if the day comes for NATO to wither.

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  • Alyson Bailes is Vice President of the European Security Programme at the Institute for EastWest Studies and is currently on a two-year leave from the British Foreign Office. The opinions expressed here are her own.
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