IHT - Europe Force plan draws a US caution on Nato

Paris, Thursday, December 16, 1999

By William Drozdiak - Washington Post Service

BRUSSELS - The United States on Wednesday welcomed Europe's plan to build a 60,000-strong rapid reaction force by 2003 but warned that it must not evolve in a way that undermines NATO or neglects the security interests of those allies not taking part in the project.

At a meeting of NATO foreign ministers, the decision by 15 European Union leaders at a summit meeting last weekend in Helsinki to set up a collective military force was hailed as a welcome initiative that could help Europe rectify its military shortcomings and assume greater responsibility for its own defense.

But the ambitious plan has raised serious doubts about whether it could ultimately divide or weaken the structure of the NATO alliance, notably among the United States, Canada and six European countries who belong to NATO but are not members of the European Union.

Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott said the European plan represented ''several steps in the right direction.'' He emphasized that the United States had often urged its allies to step up defense spending and claimed any measures that enhanced Europe's ability to care for its own security needs would be backed by Washington.

''There should be no confusion about America's position on the need for a stronger Europe,'' Mr. Talbott said. ''We are not against; we are not ambivalent; we are not anxious; we are for it. We want to see a Europe that can act effectively through the alliance, or if NATO is not engaged, on its own.''

But Mr. Talbott also gave a clear warning that the European Union must be careful not to jeopardize the interests of Turkey, Norway, Iceland, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic - who could find themselves dragged into a future Continental conflict even though they might not have a voice when EU governments decide on the need for military action.

Mr. Talbott praised the avowed intention to improve Europe's military capabilities and prepare for the possibility of military conflict when the United States, or NATO as a whole, declines to become involved.

But he insisted that allies ''who, unlike us, live on this side of the Atlantic deserve special status in the EU's security and defense deliberations'' because their pledges to help fellow NATO states when attacked could easily embroil them in a conflict not of their making.

The delicate attempt to reconcile the European Union's ambitions to create a common defense policy with NATO's role as the Continent's pre-eminent security organization has emerged as one of the most challenging missions facing the United States and its European allies in the next century.

''Europeans have learned a very important lesson from the Kosovo air campaign: that the military imbalance with the United States must be urgently redressed,'' said George Robertson, the NATO secretary-general.

''We Europeans have finally realized that we need to do more in our self-interest and to strengthen and reinvigorate the alliance,'' Mr. Robertson said.

Mr. Robertson observed that Europe has over 2 million men and women under arms, but is hard-pressed to deploy and maintain 40,000 troops in Kosovo. During the NATO air war, the United States flew an overwhelming majority of bombing and reconnaissance missions because the European allies were woefully under-equipped after years of shrinking defense budgets.

The first test of an independent European military force could come next year, when several allied governments have proposed that a Eurocorps consisting of French, German, Spanish and Belgian troops take a leading role in Kosovo peacekeeping operations. The NATO supreme commander, General Wesley Clark, said he plans to make a recommendation after reviewing whether the Europeans can muster sufficient troops for such a mission in the new year.

NATO is also worried about EU plans to set up parallel committees for a political and military staff that could duplicate, rather than complement, the alliance's own organization.

United States officials said that unless the allies ''get it right'' by creating structures that work in harmony, the Europeans may end up building a competing military institution that will accelerate an American retreat from Europe that would render NATO superfluous.

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