At some point in the Kosovo crisis, European members of NATO had a dual realization: (1) that they were managing to hold together, despite domestic political tensions; (2) that they really ought to be able to do this kind of thing without such heavy reliance on their superpower ally across the Atlantic.
This is good news for Washington. American officials for years have been prodding the Europeans to shoulder more of the security responsibilities for their continent. Since the end of the cold war, and the Soviet threat, US troops stationed in Europe have dropped by two-thirds to 100,000.
The locals were getting the message, though it was far from clear whether they'd muster the political will to respond. The drawn-out Balkans crisis, and Kosovo in particular, has changed that.
Within the last month, the European Union has forged plans to absorb the Western European Union, which for the last half-century has passed, loosely, for a Europe-wide defense structure. The EU intends to put muscle into its long-envisioned common foreign and security policy, creating a new directorate that will be run by NATO's current secretary-general, Spaniard Javier Solana.
In concept, it's a propitious move. Mr. Solana has proven his grit, seeing NATO through the Kosovo test. And the EU's determination appears solid, with once-standoffish Germany taking the lead. Germany's contribution of 8,000 peacekeepers in Kosovo marks a turning point, indicating it's ready to take a larger diplomatic and security role in Europe, along with its economic leadership.
But a European defense force that could step in to quell conflicts without reliance on the US and NATO exists, so far, only on paper. The crucial test is whether EU members are willing to raise defense spending to match their aspirations. They want to match the US in areas like command and control, transport, and precision-guided weaponry. But, currently, Washington spends one-third more on defense than its 18 NATO allies combined.
Resistance to higher military spending in Germany, France, and even in Britain could be intense. But so, it appears, is Europe's resolve.
It would be cynically easy to view all this as a ploy to feed defense industries and festoon the world with even more weaponry. But a Europe able to address more of its security needs will strengthen peace, providing a model that might be put to use elsewhere. It will also help deflate the "world policeman" image that the US neither wants, nor can sustain.