Contrary to many fears, Kosovo did not ruin the North Atlantic Alliance's 50th anniversary celebration in Washington last April after all. On the contrary, the solidarity that all the allies felt compelled to demonstrate amid the crisis may have helped them paper over their numerous differences over NATO's mission and procedures in a new era. The summit's agreement on an updated "Strategic Concept" for the alliance was a significant achievement. But anything less than success in the Kosovo crisis will undermine this unity -- an outcome that now seems likely.

The allies began the war with high expectations. The center-left governments in office in key allied countries stressed the moral imperatives of reversing ethnic cleansing and saving the people of Kosovo. Under attack from political forces on the far left (and, in France, from the right) for collaborating with the hated Americans, these leaders have defended their solidarity with NATO through moral argument. The war must "prevent a humanitarian catastrophe," German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder insisted. But if the crisis ends in an ambiguous diplomatic compromise with Slobodan Milosevic, the disillusionment may be sharp and the political reverberations intense. NATO's unity of purpose in entering the war will not preclude transatlantic finger-pointing and recriminations if the outcome does not live up to the high standard that was set. The strategic stake for the alliance has become enormous.

Through most of the Kosovo war, the alliance has shown an impressive solidarity. Occasional displays of weakness by individual allies -- such as the impatient Greek and Italian pleas for a "bombing pause" after the very first night of bombing and a similar German overture three weeks later -- have been quickly squelched. Confidence in the prospects of success seemed to vindicate the alliance and its U.S. leadership. Nato was demonstrating its relevance and effectiveness in the new era by combating ethnic violence in Europe. No other institution -- neither the United Nations, nor the European Union (EU), nor the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe -- was capable of military heavy lifting. A success in Kosovo (an even more difficult case than Bosnia) would guarantee the primacy of NATO in Europe's future. There would be no doubt that NATO was the preeminent and indispensable security institution on the continent. The controversy over whether a U.N. Security Council mandate was needed for such nondefensive NATO interventions (which the United States opposed) seemed virtually settled. The Kosovo precedent validated an exception for "humanitarian catastrophes," perhaps hinting of future unconstrained NATO action in other, more geopolitical emergencies.

In short, the transatlantic mood was good. Both Europeans and Americans seemed to have relearned the lesson that they could not achieve important objectives in Europe without each other. Even French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine fended off criticism from leftists and Gaullists alike by insisting that, in this crisis, "one must not argue in terms of competition between Europe and the United States." There was "remarkable" cooperation between Europe and America over Kosovo, he added -- putting aside his own usual screed against American hyperpuissance. In the United States, a public opinion survey by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations found that Europe still came ahead of Asia as an American foreign policy priority -- by an impressive 42 to 28 percent. Despite all the vaunted (and in some quarters dreaded) "multiculturalism" and demographic change in the United States, Americans still seemed Eurocentric, at least in understanding Europe's pivotal geopolitical importance.

But a hard question remained: Were we all in a fool's paradise so long as the unfolding of the Kosovo crisis preserved the hope of victory? NATO leaders had entered the war confident that victory would come quickly through airpower without the politically unpalatable resort to ground troops -- an idea Eliot Cohen has derided as "immaculate coercion." Yet the war dragged on for many weeks. It remained to be seen whether the military strategy that was the most politically convenient for maintaining an allied consensus would prove the most effective strategy, not just the lowest common denominator.


An outcome short of victory -- say, an ambiguous compromise that leaves Milosevic in power in Belgrade and still holding on to a Kosovo depopulated of most ethnic Albanians -- will bring these idealistic hopes down to earth. Many European governments have gone far out on a limb to defend their role in NATO's war. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has insisted that his "new generation of leaders . . . who hail from the progressive side of politics" must show that they "are prepared to be as firm as any of [their] predecessors right or left in seeing this thing through." He has argued forthrightly and publicly for ground troops, only to be rebuffed by President Clinton. At the same time, the Social Democratic/Green coalition in Germany has come under pressure from its left-wing colleagues as well as the ex-communist Party of Democratic Socialism for participating in the war at all, as did the Italian government, which includes communists in its coalition. The French "cohabitation" government of Gaullist Jacques Chirac and socialist Lionel Jospin was assaulted simultaneously by far-right Gaullists as well as anti-American leftists. All these governments will be left politically naked by an outcome that does not live up to expectations.

Before the crisis, the EU was already moving toward a Common Foreign and Security Policy to assert its autonomy from the United States. Disillusionment in Kosovo will lead them to step up these efforts with a vengeance. Be they the hawkish British or their more dovish colleagues, the Europeans will all distance themselves from America to one degree or another, taking refuge in the process of European institution-building. They will draw the lesson even more emphatically that they must have the capacity to act effectively on their own and reduce their dependence on the United States. Illogical as this may seem -- Europe could not have handled the Kosovo crisis any better than the United States did -- the tie with the United States, already controversial, will become the easiest target. Few European leaders in the future will want to take such domestic heat again for relying on the United States and then coming up short.

The issue of the need for a U.N. mandate will also get a second life. This complaint is even more of a non sequitur, since insistence on a Security Council mandate in this crisis would have meant Russian and Chinese vetoes, thus guaranteeing Milosevic a free hand from the beginning. Nonetheless, many Europeans saw the lack of a U.N. mandate as a cloud over the whole undertaking's legitimacy. These allies will respond readily to the call "never again" -- at least with regard to the absence of U.N. mandates. Indeed, at French insistence the alliance has already accepted the need for U.N. approval as a condition of the peacekeeping force intended for Kosovo as part of a settlement.

The U.N. issue is not just a technical matter. The requirement of a Security Council mandate for NATO military activity implies that the alliance of Western democracies is morally inadequate to make such decisions alone. Moreover, the central purpose of such a requirement is to constrain the American superpower, pure and simple. This has not gone unnoticed in the United States, where the U.N.'s popularity -- already low -- is being further undermined by this discussion.

Even the debate over NATO's enlargement will be affected. Some observers argue that the Balkan crisis makes it more urgent for NATO to take in new members like Slovenia, Romania, and Bulgaria to expand the zone of stability in the region. This proposal is a serious one. On the other hand, NATO's most recent new members, especially Hungary, were hesitant in participating in the Kosovo war for a variety of reasons. This was contrary to the predictions of NATO expansion champions (including this author) and is hardly a great advertisement for further enlargement. As for southeastern Europe, skeptics will ask whether allied parliaments will be eager to extend solemn new defense commitments to countries in an explosive region whose problems we have just demonstrated we do not handle very well. If there is allied consensus on the vital importance of this area and on a strategy to stabilize it, NATO should proceed with enlargement. But the hard thinking should come first.

Recriminations are likely in the United States as well. Although the Clinton administration will be blamed, so will the allies. Indeed, Pentagon officials have already started the ball rolling by blaming the allies for the air campaign's inadequacies. "Europeans have suckered us in again," Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) has complained. "If Kosovo is so important, the alliance can step forward and take over." This criticism is just a step away from reopening the question of why American troops are still in Europe. As with any failure, defeat in Kosovo will be an orphan.

Finally, there will be wider ramifications for U.S. foreign policy if the outcome is seen as a failure. Sino-American relations will suffer thanks to the nasty Chinese overreaction after the accidental U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. America's relationship with Russia may pay a price for Moscow's coddling of Milosevic, despite the Clinton administration's active encouragement of Russian mediation. The American people and military are likely to be gun-shy about any future interventions. And leaders around the world, from Baghdad to Beijing, will draw their conclusions about America's credibility, staying power, and competence.


If Europe does find the political will after this crisis to mobilize its own defense capacities, so much the better -- provided it keeps the anti-American reflex under control. The United States has wisely encouraged the EU's project for a Common Foreign and Security Policy, focusing its concerns on specific issues (such as EU defense cooperation) to protect NATO's cohesion and effectiveness. As Blair has stressed, the real task for Europe is to improve its own capabilities to serve alliance needs, not to create duplicative new institutions for their own sake. These capabilities are currently sorely deficient. For all of Europe's vaunted moves toward "independence" from the United States, Europe's national defense budgets are shrinking and its huge military-technological lag behind the United States is widening every year. Although western Europe's combined defense budgets add up to two-thirds of the Pentagon's, they yield less than a quarter of America's deployable fighting strength. Europe's armies are for the most part unmodernized and incapable of serious power projection. At this rate, Europe's security dependence on the United States will only grow in coming years, further aggravating mutual resentments.

Perhaps the Kosovo crisis will lead Europe to devote more resources to the security dimension of its new identity. But institutional fixes are less important than modernizing forces, which costs money. This also applies to the recent proposal to merge the Western European Union (WEU), a long dormant European security grouping, with the EU. To its credit, the EU has already taken the lead in committing resources for economic reconstruction in the postwar Balkans. Perhaps the EU will also think more strategically about how its enlargement into this region of Europe could enhance prosperity and stability. If all this comes out of the Kosovo crisis, all the better.

Whatever the diplomatic outcome, however, both Europeans and Americans may want to reconsider their enthusiasm for humanitarian interventions. Are they sustainable? Might they not be more difficult than was thought? As was discovered in Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia, "peacekeeping" sometimes is a form of war. Serious war-planning is required, not optimistic assumptions that the kind of power most politically convenient to use will automatically have the desired effect on the opponent. Ethnic conflicts are a swamp, and NATO may not want to wager its future on its ability to "solve" them.

The larger risk is that Kosovo will discredit not just the exuberance of Wilsonian interventionism but internationalism itself, including Atlantic solidarity. Just as the idealistic expectations that Wilson raised magnified the disillusionment when those expectations were not met, Wilson's heirs are now flirting with precisely the same danger. In the Kosovo crisis, skeptics like commentator Sam Donaldson asked persistently, "Where's the national interest?" -- articulating the popular instinct that a humanitarian exertion too divorced from a strategic national interest is not long sustainable. Much American skepticism during the war has come from a lack of confidence in Clinton as commander in chief. But even after the war, and after Clinton's term of office, the legacy will remain. Future presidents will carry a heavier burden of proof whenever they seek to demonstrate that a military action is vital to the United States -- even in Europe.

A loss of faith in the Atlantic alliance would be the greatest non sequitur and the worst tragedy of all. Atlantic solidarity is as essential as ever in the turbulent new era, morally and strategically. Whatever the international challenge, Europeans' and Americans' first recourse should be each other. Europe remains a vital interest for the United States; an American role remains indispensable for Europe's security and progress. But this crisis will send collateral damage spreading far beyond Kosovo.

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  • Peter W. Rodman, a former White House and State Department official, is Director of National Security Programs at the Nixon Center and author of the recent monograph Drifting Apart? Trends in U.S.-European Relations.
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