PARIS -- If you credit what Europe's leaders say, the next decade will see the European Union give itself a unified military force, just as it has given itself a single market and a single currency.
Former NATO Secretary General Javier Solana has been made foreign and security policy leader for the EU and will simultaneously head the West European Union, the long-dormant European mutual security alliance.
His expected mandate will be to give Europe both the ability to field an independent army corps (50,000 to 60,000 men) for peacekeeping and peace-establishing missions and a rapid-reaction force.
With these developments, the debate has become serious over how Europe's ambition squares with the expectations Americans have held on this subject.
Washington has already agreed to an independent European defense "identity" but wants this strictly under NATO, as U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen once again emphasized in September, speaking at the International Institute for Strategic Studies conference in San Diego.
Washington would like the Europeans to carry out NATO missions that engage no direct U.S. interest, as in the Balkans. Its willingness to see a distinct European military force, with its own commander and the right to receive NATO logistical and intelligence support, carries an implied condition: that NATO's supreme commander, always an American, has the last word, or at least a veto, over what this European force does.
Otherwise, as Mr. Cohen warned, Washington fears a Europe "decoupled" from the U.S., "duplication of effort" and even NATO's "undermining."
Since the war in Kosovo the United States has urged more military spending by Europe.
It has wanted force modernization, meaning re-equipment with advanced American technology. Since the Kosovo campaign, the Pentagon has repeatedly emphasized the technological gap between U.S. and European forces.
However, the gap that actually exists is, for the most part, quantitative rather than qualitative.
The French, for example, were second to the United States in their contribution to the Kosovo bombing campaign, but they ran out of laser-guided weapons and had to buy more from the United States.
They also had to depend on the United States for aerial refueling. Other European air forces made a worse showing.
The Europeans' problems were not the result of basic technological backwardness. Europe has three different fighter-bombers currently coming into production (the Anglo-German Eurofighter, Sweden's Grippen and France's Rafale).
They are later-generation aircraft than anything the United States will actually produce until well into the new century.
Europe's missile systems are competitive.
Military-industrial mergers in recent weeks have produced giant aerospace and missile conglomerates in Britain and continental Europe that rival America's Boeing, Lockheed and Raytheon Hughes.
What Kosovo demonstrated was that the Europeans have inadequate satellite intelligence (and complain that the United States does not fully share its own). They have no heavy air transport, despite years of wrangling over the problem. Their forces still are mainly deployed and equipped for central European tank battles, rather than the mobile missions necessary today. The countries that have depended on national service for military manpower are still in the course of professionalizing their armies.
These military inadequacies can all be fixed by spending more money, which is not a politically popular idea. However if Europe does spend more on military forces it will buy European -- and that notion meets a very cool reception in Washington.
U.S. government and industry did not expect the pan-European aerospace industry mergers that have produced Europe's own "champions." They expected U.S. manufacturers to absorb European companies or establish American-led transatlantic alliances.
The new reality is that the Europeans have already established their independent European "identity" in military aerospace and the allied defense industry. The Europeans now are expected to buy from their own manufacturers. Washington calls this "Fortress Europe."
On the other hand, the Europeans are not going to have an autonomous military force, even under NATO, for some time to come.
The Solana appointment and decisions taken by the EU defense ministers earlier this month in Brussels on defense structures and programs are serious steps in that direction, but only beginner's steps.
The smaller European allies remain wary about measures that could alienate the United States, and currently are under heavy pressure from Washington to limit the autonomy and scope of any military force under independent European Union command.
The French, naturally, are all for independence. The British are doing their best to appease Washington but have disconcerted the Pentagon and the Clinton administration by how far their cooperation with France has already gone. (The program to reclaim European military autonomy was a joint British-French initiative, launched at a meeting of the two governments last December).
Germany is torn between its prudent American loyalties and its commitment to Europe. The United States is not very popular in Germany right now, for a number of reasons. However support for the new European defense initiative is a matter of European loyalty, and Daimler is partner in the biggest of Europe's military aerospace conglomerates.
No one in Europe seriously imagines a transatlantic break.
The situation nonetheless is one in which the underlying forces, both political and industrial, are more competitive than cooperative.
William Pfaff writes a syndicated column.