Paris -- The U.S. government has now three times given formal notice to the European Community that whatever new security arrangements Europe makes must not compete with NATO. The West Europeans have been talking about reviving West European Union, a military grouping set up to defend Europe before NATO existed, or creating a new military agency under European Community control.
The most recent warning came at the end of April, when Secretary of State James Baker wrote to the community's president to say that while the United States supports, in principle, the idea of new European defense arrangements, these must "reinforce" NATO.
Norway's defense minister, Johan Jorgen Holst, recently in Washington, told journalists in Paris last week that he found Washington officials determined that any new European defense structure be subordinated to NATO. He remarked that this "simply is not on" -- a judgment of some weight, given that Norway is not a member of the European Community and has always been strongly Atlanticist in outlook.
Mr. Holst connects this American government position with another Washington obsession of the moment, that of the United States as the sole superpower. In Washington "you only hear about U.S. leadership," he says. "You don't hear much language of partnership today."
The conviction that any new European defense grouping must be under NATO, which means under the preponderant influence of the United States, is a modified version of the amazing proposal made in November 1989 by the American Ambassador to NATO, William Howard Taft IV, that NATO be placed in charge of "melding" the efforts of all the non-military as well as military agencies of Western cooperation -- "not only the European Community, but the Group of Seven, the Group of 24, the Council of Europe and GATT." This was described at the time by an American official as "a trial balloon." It was possible to dismiss it as a case of bureaucratic turf-claiming, or turf-expansion, coming at a moment when NATO's future was starting to seem jeopardized by the fading of the Cold War.
Since then, however, the Persian Gulf War victory seems to have combined with the shipwreck of the Soviet Union to convince Washington that the idea of a post-Cold War international system dominated by the U.S. can and should be pursued.
Contributing to this has been the fact that the Bush administration simply does not conceptualize these things, and has the usual Washington insensitivity to long-term geopolitical forces. It has no taste at all for "the vision thing," which otherwise might suggest that the rise of Europe and Japan, and the decline of the Soviet Union, make American domination of its allies less acceptable, rather than more so.
Washington's are tactical impulses. But tactically motivated policies in the end impose an unrecognized or unacknowledged concept, and the concept in this case is not one the other Western allies are prepared to accept. None questions America's military pre-eminence today. But a great many people in the allied capitals do ask at what price this pre-eminence has been purchased, and are not ready to accept military power alone as the qualification for global leadership.
A European official remarks, "these days we dread the news that the U.S. ambassador is asking for an appointment. We know that he will either be making some new demand for money, or complaining about payments on past claims."
The notion that the United States now should be paid to lead its allies is slowly undermining good allied relations. It is also a foolish policy in that there is no evidence of any solid support among the American public for an American role as the hired gun of the world community. There is little reason to think that the American people are prepared to see the lives of their young men and women offered for sale as military mercenaries.
Past American leadership was earned by high standards of American performance across the whole range of national accomplishment. It rested on industrial primacy, leadership in industrial innovation, technological pioneering. It came from financial and trade leadership, and the position the United States held until the early 1980s as the world's principal creditor nation.
The European powers did not always agree with U.S. policies but they accepted them as serious because the U.S. paid its way and more. It backed its policies up with economic power and a willingness to sacrifice to finish the things it set out to do.
Today only the military credibility remains. The effort to recreate American leadership on that basis alone is not going to work. Certainly any effort actually to expand U.S. influence over the European allies, beyond what it was in the past, will be resisted.
The alliance atmosphere already has been altered by confusion about American intentions. Until recently the American complaint had been that the Europeans didn't do enough about their own defense. Now Washington seems to be saying that the Europeans want to do too much -- too much, that is, outside direct American influence.
In the end it is a useless quarrel. Security and sovereignty are two sides of the same coin. The Europeans were grateful to have their security reinforced by the United States during the Cold War, when they believed themselves incapable, alone, of dealing with the Soviet threat.
Today, with that threat vastly diminished, if not removed, the United States seems to want the political-military directorate of the West. It won't get that, and it will hurt itself if it tries.
An unprecedented cooperative community of the democracies has come out of the common efforts of Europe and the United States over the past 40 years. This community provides a foundation for expanded international cooperation in the future, with powerful and beneficial influence on the countries still under dictatorships or one-party governments. It would be a great tragedy if this achievement -- to which the United States has made the single biggest contribution -- were now to be jeopardized by an unconsidered American ambition, no longer backed up by overall national performance.
3)William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.