EVER since NATO was established, United States political leaders have been urging the European nations to assume more responsibility for their own defense and to pay a larger portion of the cost. Washington has also consistently expressed its support for greater European unity on both economic and security matters. Despite such official enthusiasm for a strong "European pillar" to support NATO, US policymakers have, in reality, always been profoundly ambivalent about their European allies' taking greater initiative. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney's opposition to the creation of a "rapid response force" under the auspices of the European Community is merely the latest manifestation of that ambivalence.
Even during the cold war, Washington viewed with suspicion any signs that European powers were pursuing independent policies, such as Bonn's Ostpolitik strategy in the 1970s or Chancellor Helmut Kohl's reunification overtures to Moscow in the weeks following the opening of the Berlin Wall. US officials were even more upset when the NATO allies dared to oppose American policy preferences on such issues as the Arab-Israeli dispute and the Soviet gas-pipeline project.
Washington's uneasiness about a meaningful European security role has become even more apparent now that the Soviet threat has receded and the maintenance of alliance unity at all costs seems less imperative. National security adviser Brent Scowcroft epitomized that attitude when he complained recently that the Western European nations were acting increasingly through the European Community on security issues and tending to "present the US with previously developed positions."
What the US has always wanted is the best of both worlds: a democratic Europe strong enough to relieve the US of some of its security burdens but not so strong as to challenge US primacy. Sharing alliance costs is one thing; sharing decisionmaking authority is quite another.
Washington's frantic efforts to find alternative missions for NATO after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and US officials' repeated assertions that NATO must remain the mechanism for ensuring European security in the post-cold-war era are recent expressions of the desire to preserve US primacy.
Such efforts are doomed to fail. It is becoming evident even to NATO's most ardent supporters that a cold-war military alliance is ill-suited to deal with the more subtle and complex security problems of post-cold-war Europe. And it is unrealistic to expect the populous and economically vibrant European nations to continue to defer to Washington on political or military issues. Indeed, if US leaders insist on preserving their virtual monopoly on decisionmaking, the long smoldering European resentment ma y
explode into open rebellion.
THEORETICALLY, Washington might move to resolve the problem by accepting full European equality in determining alliance policy. But that change is unlikely. Despite their professed enthusiasm for multilateral security arrangements, US leaders have always sought to preserve decisionmaking autonomy for the US. There has never been any enthusiasm for subjecting American policy on important security matters to vetoes by foreign governments, even friendly ones.
Given the growing perception in the US policy community that America is "the sole remaining superpower," the desire to avoid external constraints on US actions will increase, not diminish.
More important, the post-cold-war international system does not lend itself to a true transatlantic security partnership. Although US and European security interests overlap, they are by no means congruent. Even during the cold war, there were significant areas of divergence (e.g., Middle East policy and East-West trade). That divergence is likely to become more pronounced in a post-cold-war setting in which the common Soviet threat no longer provides the glue to ensure alliance cohesion.
US leaders are reluctant to accept the reality that a strong, prosperous Western Europe will adopt security strategies tailored to its own distinct interests. Those strategies will be increasingly independent of the US and may sometimes run directly counter to US wishes, but it is unrealistic to expect the European nations to remain pliant junior partners in a security system run by Washington. That may have been an acceptable arrangement in the early stages of the cold war when Western Europe was still
traumatized by the devastating effects of World War II, but it is no longer viable.
Instead of vainly striving to preserve US preeminence in an obsolescent alliance and getting mired in rancorous disputes about burden sharing, American leaders should learn to accept European security independence with a maximum of grace.