JEFFREY ULBRICHEuropean nations weigh old concept of neutrality
BRUSSELS, Belgium (August 23, 2000) - The European Union is moving closer to developing its own military force apart from NATO. That's forcing some of its members to either abandon a cherished tradition of neutrality or be left behind.
The term "neutral" is going out of fashion in Europe anyway in favor of the fuzzier "militarily nonaligned." Officials in EU neutrals Sweden, Finland, Austria and Ireland say this has made it easier for them to join fully in the EU's common security and defense policy while maintaining at least a fig leaf of neutrality.
Even Switzerland, a non-EU member that history has sandwiched between belligerents for centuries, has begun to shed its image as the epitome of European neutrality - at least on a political level - in favor of a more cooperative, multilateral view of the world.
The new EU assertiveness is part of a growing European confidence spawned by the economic success of the 15-nation bloc and a desire to play a larger role on the world stage. For the four EU neutrals, it's a matter of joining in the new defense policy plans or being left without a voice at the table.
"We don't call ourselves a neutral country," said Sweden's Foreign Minister Anna Lindh. "We say we are a militarily nonaligned country with the possibility of being neutral when we want to be neutral."
If that sounds like having it both ways, it is.
Neutrality made sense when Europe was divided into two blocs, but multilateralism has changed the face of the concept.
"During the Cold War, neutrality was well-defined," said Staele Ulriksen of the Norwegian Institute of Foreign Policy. "It was clear what they were neutral against. These days, it's much more difficult."
Today, the Warsaw Pact is a historical footnote. Institutions such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are playing a more active role. NATO has turned its attention from defense against an armored onslaught across the plains of Central Europe to dealing with regional or ethnic conflict, terrorism, humanitarian crises, weapons of mass destruction and peacekeeping. The thinking is changing and armies are adjusting to new realities.
Even in this new context, however, the United States still dominates NATO. The Europeans, pushed by France, Britain and Germany, want to move out from under the American shadow and give themselves the capacity to take military action no matter what Washington thinks.
All five of the "neutral" countries - the EU four plus Switzerland - are members of NATO's Partnership for Peace, an alliance program to diminish threats by strengthening military cooperation at any level a participant chooses. None of the five find any contradiction between this association and their nonaligned status.
Neither is there a commitment to mutual defense in the EU's common European security and defense policy, at least not yet.
That, the EU says, is not its purpose. Collective defense is NATO's job. The new EU policy is aimed at intervening in humanitarian, peacekeeping or peace-enforcing in situations in which the 19-nation NATO declines to get involved, areas the EU defines as "crisis management."
That falls short of going to war.
"There are gray zones," the Swedish foreign minister acknowledges. "But even if we can see dangers, the positive side is bigger."
The disappearance of one of the two competing blocs makes it easier for the neutral countries to get more deeply involved in international military activities.