A Burst of Agenda-Setting Will Disarm Europeans for Bush


Jun 6, 2001

This commentary originally appeared in Los Angeles Times on June 6, 2001.

Within two weeks, President Bush will go to Europe, but under difficult circumstances. His first presidential trip abroad carries useful symbolism, but the allies remain more skeptical about U.S. competence and commitment than at the start of any other recent U.S. administration.

With so much at stake, the president needs to disarm the doubters with a burst of agenda-setting for the Western Alliance and a vigorous display of U.S. leadership.

There is recent precedent. Eight years ago, President Clinton also worried European allies, especially by irresolution over Bosnia. But at a meeting of NATO defense ministers in October 1993, Defense Secretary Les Aspin proposed a bold and comprehensive agenda for European security that formed the basis for much of NATO's transformation. Immediately, European doubts about the Clinton administration began to dissipate.

Bush can similarly claim the high ground by boldly setting forth a leadership agenda for transatlantic relations. In addition to obligatory reassurances about America's continuing role as a European power, he should propose five initiatives:

  • Complete the task in the Balkans. The Pentagon may be right that military tasks in Bosnia and Kosovo are running down. But NATO's cohesion depends on the allies' deciding such issues collectively, and critical civilian tasks still lie ahead. Bush should challenge the Europeans to join in devoting the effort and the resources to completing the job in the Balkans, helping its peoples both succeed at home and take their proper place in European society.
  • Set the terms for the next NATO enlargement. In Prague in November 2002, NATO leaders must decide whether to take in new members and, if so, which ones. Bush should state his commitment to NATO's issuing invitations; underscore his rejection of any Russian veto—especially over the Baltic states; lay out a program for engaging Moscow; and challenge the allies to provide aspirant countries with greater support for military and economic reform.
  • Propose a grand bargain between NATO and the European Union over the latter's security and defense policy. The president should offer wholehearted support for the EU's new rapid reaction force with these provisions: that it include non-EU NATO states (Turkey, Norway) in everything but deployment decisions; that it integrate operational military planning with NATO's, and that it reaffirm NATO's primacy. If the EU fulfills these requirements, Bush should offer liberal transfers of U.S. high technology, provided the Europeans protect it from diversion and keep their defense markets open.
  • Embed missile defense decisions more deeply in the alliance. The allies accept that the Bush administration is committed to a major missile defense program, but few are convinced that the benefits will outweigh the liabilities. Bush did the right thing by offering to consult the allies before making final decisions. Now he should commit to joint assessment of threats and a variety of ways of dealing with them. He also must reaffirm the importance of arms control agreements. It is simplistic and dangerous for Bush merely to renounce the Antiballistic Missile Treaty. The president must lead the way to a multilateral replacement and also seek Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
  • Propose a new U.S.-European Union strategic partnership. This could be the bold stroke of the president's trip, and the perfect place to do it is at the EU summit meeting scheduled for June 14 in Gothenberg, Sweden. Such a partnership is logical and compelling. NATO's restructuring for the 21st century is done. An increasingly confident EU has established its single currency (the euro) and is creating institutions for both foreign and defense policy.

But huge problems remain, including nearly constant transatlantic squabbling over trade. And challenges beyond Europe and North America—cross-border crime, migration, environment, globalization, emerging security threats and the needs of left-behind regions like those in Africa—are likely to be met only if the United States and its allies pool their resources, talents and political will. Such a strategic partnership, launched and sustained at the highest levels, would also help reduce U.S.-EU frictions over trade and defense by embedding them in a larger purpose.

Taken together, this five-part agenda would instantly reverse the administration's fortunes in Europe, and it would foster European confidence in the president's vision and leadership.

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

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