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NATO: getting Europe and US together

AS the White House-congressional debate out of Washington regarding the budget deficit and defense spending heats up, acrimony has once again arisen in some political circles about the level of NATO defense spending. A number of Americans believe that the US defense role in Europe should be sharply scaled back -- both to save dollars and to prod Europeans into somehow ``doing more'' to defend themselves. What is involved in this ongoing debate, however, are several different questions: One concerns the extent to which there is a need for the stationing of US troops in Western Europe in the first place. Another concerns the appropriate role for NATO allies outside Western Europe. A third concerns what is a suitable measuring rod for comparing European and US defense efforts.

Let's consider these issues in reverse order:

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The measuring rod: While it is true that many European NATO members could devote more resources to defense, comparisons with US per capita defense spending are misleading. The US is a superpower, indeed the dominant superpower. It plays an active global role, and through its elected leaders has chosen to make the military ingredient increasingly important in its global policies. The European NATO allies do not together make up a unit which has, or aspires to, a global role. They are primarily concerned with regional affairs.

Europe's ``outside'' role: It is a fact that NATO was not set up to be a worldwide treaty organization. Evidently most West European nations shrink from ``safeguarding their future'' by seeking to control events in the rest of the world, at least by military means. Several European powers have tried that before, and they seem to feel that they learned a lesson. Part of their lack of willingness to accept military spending stems from these experiences. That the US has had similar experiences and still has decided otherwise is a reflection of a fundamentally different conception of the nation's role.

Within the NATO partnership it is necessary that different role conceptions, and the division of labor that follows, are accepted as political realities -- by all parties.

US troops in Europe: The US military presence in Europe should be seen in the same realistic light: To regard the US European forces solely as a ``burden'' undertaken for the altruistic purpose of ``defending Europe'' is to overlook the obvious political interest to the US of keeping the Soviet Union at bay in that part of the world.

The presence of US troops, however, need not be the only way for the US to back up its commitment to Europe. Also, it is hard to dispute the claim that the current US military presence may further the resolve of Europeans to put up the troops, and so forth, in defense of their own interests. In that sense, maybe it would therefore be better to pull US troops out altogether and thus force Western Europe to provide its own defense posture. But since presence presumably gives influence, the US would probably suffer a loss in this regard. NATO might then have to be restyled into an ``arm's length'' kind of alliance, with a much lower level of military integration. That might not be squarely in the US political interest, either: One should not underestimate the amount of influence the US has today over policymaking in allied countries, as a consequence of the degree of integration in allied decisionmaking.

For exactly that reason many Europeans would welcome a US pullout. It is therefore a bit misleading to see the European allies as a united bunch of slough-offs who want to be defended but are not willing to pay for their proper level of defense. The main groupings of people and nations in Europe are those who want both to have a strong defense and to pay for it as well, and on the other hand those who want neither. In most European NATO countries there are strong political groups who are as opposed to a US presence as they are to defense spending. These groups often cannot simply be ignored. Hence, European defense politics often revolves around what kinds of deals need to be made with the ``defense opposition.''

And topping it off, Europeans in general tend to be about as happy about military spending as Americans are about taxes. Though they do not offer much relief for American frustrations, such are the facts of life of the North Atlantic alliance.

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Olav Fagelund Knudsen is a visiting professor of political science from Oslo University, in Norway. He is currently at the University of Kentucky.