Bonn. -- The damage that has been done to NATO since November began is probably irreparable. The United States and Western Europe have broken apart on a crucial issue concerning Europe's future policy toward the war in Bosnia.
They have in the last few days conducted air operations in common over Bosnia and Croatia, but with bitterness expressed on both sides, by Americans at what seems Europe's moral abdication in the former Yugoslavia, and by Europeans at what they see as America's irresponsibility and even pusillanimity about backing up its talk with men on the ground in the Yugoslav crisis zone.
The mid-term elections had already produced a Congress little interested in foreign drama, its priorities tax cuts, welfare restriction, the culture wars and the presidential election of 1996. Few in Washington today care much about developments in Europe, and those who do care are not in Congress. They also are not young. In September, in Washington, I spoke to a group of policy people and academics concerned with Atlantic matters, and my impression was that no one there was under 50.
Many in Europe, however, are concerned with what goes on in Washington and believe they are seeing a destructive rise in isolationism. There can't really be a revival of 1930s-style isolationism; American business and the American economy are much too implicated in the European and world economies for that.
But (Marx notwithstanding) economic involvement does not in itself dictate political engagement, at least of the Atlanticist kind. The United States and the European Union can go their separate ways on Yugoslavia without bothering the operations of Microsoft or Disney or Ford, or Siemens or BMW. (If they go their separate ways on trade -- as the new congressional majority seems inclined to do -- it will be a different matter.)
What is happening greatly increases European interest in West Europe's own long-neglected security organization, called West European Union. WEU has been named the military arm of the European Union, but this has meant little so long as NATO functioned.
However, the United States cannot conduct one policy through NATO and the West Europeans conduct another, so if the Europeans want their own policy they need the military means to carry it out. NATO has command, staff, forces and operating systems in place. WEU has nothing or next to nothing. The encounter in recent days with a divided NATO has shaken up people who in the past ignored WEU.
There not only is disagreement about ex-Yugoslavia on the two sides of the Atlantic, but about Iraq as well, and potentially about other issues in the Middle East and in Africa. There is also a convergence of West European views with those of Russia, at least on Yugoslavia and Iraq, in opposition to U.S. positions. The major West European powers and Russia all are against arming Bosnia. They all think Iraq now has done what U.N. resolutions demanded of Baghdad, and that sanctions should be lifted.
The German government is convinced that the so-called Eurocorps -- composed of French, German and Belgian units -- now is essential to Europe's future. Officials say it currently is successful beyond what had been expected, and will be operational in 1995, in need of assignments. A second such Eurocorps is being developed with French, Spanish and Italian components.
Even the British government now seems convinced that it has a security stake in Europe outside NATO. It takes the Eurocorps seriously, which as recently as last spring it did not. In recent weeks a Franco-British air force equivalent was agreed upon, which would initially have a British base and a French commander and would be available for rapid-response operations. The British now also look likely to join the multinational European program to commission a long-range military transport aircraft from the Airbus consortium, for early 21st Century delivery.
In Germany one is also told that the two-speed Europe proposed by a Christian Democratic Party study group in September is essential. As Europe expands from 12 members to 16 and more, "structural change" must follow or there will be a drift back (as the Christian Democrats put it) toward "a loosely knit grouping of states restricted to certain economic aspects . . . no more than a 'sophisticated' free-trade area incapable of overcoming either the existential internal problems of the European societies or the external challenges they face."
In a fundamental sense, this estrangement of the Europeans from the United States is inevitable, a reflection of the diverging views and preoccupations of people on the two sides of the Atlantic now that the pressures and fears of the Cold War have vanished. However, the terms on which this estrangement has come, and the bitterness that has been expressed about how it is happening, are not entirely reassuring about the future of America's relations with by far the most powerful group of industrial economies on Earth -- possessing a notable record, when upset, for making waves in history.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.