Tiptoeing Into Europe's Briar Patch


Feb 1, 2001

This commentary originally appeared in Los Angeles Times on February 1, 2001.

This weekend, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld is in Munich for the blue-ribbon Wehrkunde conference on security policy, where the U.S. annually presents its European security agenda to top-level allied defense officials and experts. As the first member of the new Bush administration to cross the Atlantic, Rumsfeld's every comment will be attended as closely as though he were Alan Greenspan at a Wall Street dinner party. It is a daunting task to get right.

Two positions advanced by the Bush team appear to most allies to be both troubling and contradictory.

As part of what used to be called the "Powell Doctrine," after the new secretary of State, Colin Powell, the U.S. foresees reducing its military role in European peacekeeping, in favor of emphasizing more robust military tasks elsewhere. To the outsider, this shouldn't seem a valid basis for an allied crisis. U.S. troops play a minor role in NATO-led peacekeeping forces in Bosnia and Kosovo, about 15% of total strength; and a review of European problems does not reveal other places where the North Atlantic Treaty Organization--with or without the U.S.--is likely for the foreseeable future to face repeating these Balkan ventures.

Yet throughout its history, including since the end of the Cold War, the principle of sharing risks--great or small--has been central to allied unity. Indeed, it was only when the U.S. agreed in early 1995 to share military risks in Bosnia that NATO could decide to launch its successful bombing campaign and start winding down that war. Thus, whether the Bush administration recognizes the continuing importance of the "shared risk" principle will be judged more severely in Europe than whether, in time, the U.S. were actually doing very much for peacekeeping.

Meanwhile, the Bush team has doubts about the European Union's plan to create a new rapid-reaction force that could, in theory, undertake small operations without NATO. Most Europeans support this new force, which is part of the EU's fledgling European Security and Defense Policy, as a necessary step in building a unified Europe. It can also help meet long-standing U.S. demands that the allies assume a greater share of defense burdens while also providing limited insurance against the possibility that Washington might one day abstain from an allied military operation in Europe.

A year ago, most U.S. concerns about the projected rapid-reaction force were laid to rest when the EU agreed that it would only be used when "NATO as a whole is not engaged," which means "NATO first" and "with U.S. approval." Yet some Bush officials and outside commentators, like Henry Kissinger, have misperceived the very limited EU effort as a blow to NATO's unity and primacy, something that not even the French--most vocal in wanting to "re-balance influence" within the alliance--want to happen.

This risks becoming a squabble over not much. A few candid conversations could clear matters up. But the Europeans can be forgiven for seeing an inconsistency between U.S. misgivings about taking part in European peacekeeping and the minor European effort to fill a military gap, if Washington does indeed create one.

These issues pale against the big struggle ahead over U.S. plans for a national missile defense system. Unfortunately, the Clinton administration did a poor job of explaining to the Europeans the purposes or the process of moving forward with NMD, and thus old fears about earlier U.S. ventures to protect itself with a missile shield have been resurrected. The allies also worry that U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty would poison relations with Moscow, whether or not the treaty is obsolete, as Rumsfeld said recently.

And they worry that, in U.S. thinking, NMD will substitute for a broader strategy for dealing with weapons of mass destruction; that Europe either will be left outside the missile shield or will face the staggering costs of being included; that the U.S. will send the wrong signals to Beijing just as China is emerging on the world stage; and--as with the tiff over peacekeeping--that the new administration will look at security through a lens that does not focus on allied needs or concerns.

Rumsfeld's maiden visit to Europe is critical. None of the pending transatlantic security issues needs to create another large and lasting NATO crisis.

Yet for the Bush administration to avoid long-term trouble with key allies, Rumsfeld must clearly show in Munich that the U.S. is sensitive to Europeans' concerns and commit the Bush administration to working with them before taking any irrevocable decision that affects their interests.

If Rumsfeld does so--drawing on his experience as U.S. ambassador to NATO in the 1970s--then President Bush can hope to continue the pace of fashioning European security for the 21st century that was begun by his father, former President Bush, and President Clinton.

Robert E. Hunter, who is a senior advisor at the RAND Corp., was U.S. ambassador to NATO from 1993 to 1998.

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