London. -- What is the American military mission in Europe now that the anti-Soviet alliance the United States created and led for over 40 years is without a clear adversary?
What is NATO's future? Cutting closer to home, does the U.S have a role in any new military structure that develops in Europe? If so, how much of one?
These questions address perhaps the most delicate issue in Europe today. That was the word used by a German Foreign Ministry spokesman when they were put to him. Delicate. He didn't want to talk about it. He referred the inquirer to speeches supportive of NATO by Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
In May, Chancellor Kohl said, "The North-Atlantic alliance is and remains a security federation that we cannot do without." And the British are even more emphatic.
But the questions are being asked more frequently and on both sides of the Atlantic. How could they not, in view of the changes that have come over the world?
Adm. Jeremy M. Boorda, Commander in Chief of U.S. Naval Forces in Europe, said last week he believed "NATO still will be here doing its job" five years from now, and emphasized, "the Trans-Atlantic alliance, with the U.S. and Canada, is really important."
Admiral Boorda said this as gave a briefing here on the NATO-led monitoring of UN sanctions off the coast of Yugoslavia. "NATO," he stressed, "is the only organization capable of an operation such as that."
So why all the questioning? If everybody is so sure NATO's place is secure, why the doubts? Why the need for a briefing that was, in Admiral Boorda's own words, "a commercial for NATO?"
Because not everybody shares his appreciation of NATO's future. There are those who, for a variety of reasons, expect the American role in Europe's defense arrangements to diminish drastically. Some, in fact, are eager for it.
The French, for instance.
Relations between Paris and Washington are not warm these days. There is a suspicion on both sides of the Atlantic that the French are trying to edge the Americans out. Thus French enthusiasm for a Franco-German military force is construed as serving this end, as well as its eager support for the enhancement of the Western European Union.
The WEU is a military alliance of nine European nations. Though it predates NATO, it has not been very active during its long life, or even thought about very much.
But today the WEU is operating jointly with NATO in the Adriatic off Yugoslavia. It has ships out there, and operational control over them, the first such mission in its 44-year history. Admiral Boorda says the cooperation between the two alliances couldn't be better, but it is noted that now there are two alliances where once there was one.
The WEU, and the Franco-German corps, the Eurocorps, constitute what is called the European Pillar, or European "defense identity."
The French deny they are trying to push the Americans out. They argue that Europe must create what the European Community described at its Maastricht summit in December, 1991, as "a genuine European security and defense identity and a greater European responsibility on defense matters."
Europe must do this, the French say, because the United States will eventually withdraw on its own, and Europe must prepare for that eventuality.
There are many who share the French expectations, and they are not all French. Guenter Hellman, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University and student of the effects of the Allied troop presence in Europe, said, "I am a strong Atlanticist but feel skeptical about whether the Americans will stay in the long run. Not so much because of frictions between the United States and Europe, but because of domestic U.S. considerations."
A high British Government official, who declined to allow his name to be used, said Britain also expected a significant American stand-down in Europe, but complained that the French, by articulating this expectation openly, might be hurrying it along.
"This fighting with the French is really stupid," said David Calleo, director of the European studies at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies. "Basically we both want the same thing, that Europe should be more self sufficient."
Dr. Calleo is convinced NATO's days are numbered.
He lists some arguments for NATO's continuance, and there are many. They include the need to meet any residual threats from the countries that replaced the Soviet Union; the desirability for the United States to maintain a foothold in Europe to monitor the security and political climate here, and to be able move quickly to other parts of the world, such as the Gulf.
There is the logistical dimension of which Admiral Boorda spoke. The United States is the only country with the "strategic lift," the ability to move large numbers of men and equipment fast and far.
There is also the U.S. nuclear and intelligence gathering capabilities, both something none of the other NATO countries can offer to the same extent.
Finally, there is NATO's political role. This is seen by Dr. Stephen Woolcock of London's Royal Institute of International Affairs as perhaps NATO's most important function in the Cold War's aftermath, to provide reassurance for countries which have just emerged from a long night of totalitarianism and might be looking for some kind of association with NATO as proof against a relapse.
Even so, Dr. Woolcock, believes "There won't be a U.S. military presence [in Europe] indefinitely."
Nor should there be, thinks Dr. Calleo, at least not a significant one.
"All these are the standard reasons for staying, but they are not a valid reason to sustain say 100,000 troops in Europe," he said, adding: "During the Cold War we lived in world of the big compromise. The Europeans developed the economic dimension and we took care of the military side of things.
"The EC [European Community] is being criticized for not putting an end to the conflict in Yugoslavia, but if it is going to be a success in this area it will have to have some military thing that is essentially European. NATO is just too Atlanticist.
"And the whole idea of an integrated command under an American, the sooner that goes, the better."
Most people interviewed for this article were either people involved in making policy or implementing it, or expert observers from academia and the think tanks of Europe.
Nearly all stressed their conviction that American participation in the European defense equation was vital. Nearly all agreed total U.S. withdrawal could be a disaster. It is a question of the degree of participation.
Thus, Willem van Eekelen, the secretary-general of the WEU, says, "Not too many people think about it, but Europe is still a continent in disarray. Look at the countries of Eastern Europe, the area around Russia, Yugoslavia. It's only in Western Europe where we have stability. And Europe is a more stable continent because the United States is here."
But NATO as it is, utterly dominated by Americans, is tending toward irrelevance he said. "Our real task is to shape a two-pillared organization, with an American contribution in a more equal way," he said, adding, "and certainly it is in your country's interest to reduce their role."
Pierre Hassner, of the Center for the Study of International Relations in Paris, places an even a stronger emphasis on the United States as a factor for stability: "Russia and Germany are just too big for the comfort of their neighbors. This has been our history. We are just not comfortable with these two."
Something is needed to counterbalance them, he said. That something, he made clear, is the United States.
But, he too, said the era of unchallenged American leadership in the defense of Europe is over. Now it is necessary to find the appropriate level of participation, and once it is found, to persuade the United States to accept it.
In the end, of course, the question will be decided on the other side of the Atlantic. All the Europeans can do is to create a friendly context for that decision, or series of decisions, as they are made.
Both presidential candidates in the United States advocate significant reductions of U.S. forces in Europe. George Bush would bring the levels to 100,000, down from the current 245,000. Bill Clinton is talking about 50,000.
But even that may be too many after 1994, when the last Russian soldiers are withdrawn from Eastern Europe, Germany and possibly the Baltic states.
Then there there is the challenge of generating popular support at home for an unclear mission. Americans were willing to support over a quarter of a million troops in Europe when the threat was clear. Now that it no longer is, the question that becomes harder and harder to answer is why stay at all?