The Pentagon announced recently that it was withdrawing all 1200 U.S. forces from Iceland, a tiny North Atlantic nation, because of a "changed strategic environment." Few Americans recall that Iceland was an original signatory of the North Atlantic Pact in 1949, which was designed to protect Europe and America against a Soviet attack.
This change of U.S. policy is in keeping with a restructuring of U.S. forces in the NATO alliance. Major reductions are proceeding in Germany, Italy, Spain, Britain, and Luxembourg. No U.S. forces have been stationed in France since 1967.
Recently the State Department announced that it was reducing the number of Foreign Service personnel in Europe. Secretary Condoleezza Rice concluded that, in order to take account of changed global priorities, large U.S. diplomatic missions, such as in Paris, London, and Rome, should be reduced while embassies in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa needed to be enlarged.
After the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union imploded, many Americans and Europeans questioned the need for large U.S. forces in Europe, and some doubted the continued relevance of NATO. European governments reduced substantially their defense budgets in the 1990s while the United States increased its own. Nevertheless, Washington continued until recently to station over 100,000 U.S. troops in Europe.
President Clinton's answer was straight forward: Europe continued to face security dangers and needed U.S. help. When ethnic warfare erupted in Bosnia in 1995, Europeans urged Clinton to join in a large military operation to end it. Kosovo proved to be another security threat in the Balkans.
However, Clinton and his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, wanted NATO to expand its role outside Europe, especially in the Middle East where Iraq posed a continuing threat to its neighbors and where al Qaida terrorists threatened Saudi Arabia's internal security. In 1998 Clinton ordered intensive bombing of Iraq's military installations, in retaliation for Saddam Hussein's ouster of arms inspectors who were there under the U.N. Security Council's authority.
The current breach in the Atlantic Alliance resulted from the decision of George Bush and Tony Blair to remove Saddam Hussein without the approval of the United Nations. France, Germany, Belgium, and Canada opposed the war, and Spain subsequently joined them. Although Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, and Canada's new prime minister, Stephen Harper, have made strides in mending fences with Washington, the damage to NATO's cohesion remains.
On the political front, relations between Washington and European governments have improved somewhat, highlighted by the Bush administration's support for European diplomatic pressure on Iran to abandon its quest for nuclear weapons. So far, these efforts have not succeeded.
Condoleezza Rice has worked with the European Union and Russia to support administration efforts to forge a lasting peace in Palestine, providing for an economically viable Palestinian state and secure borders for Israel. However, Israel worries that European governments are more favorable to the Palestinian side.
George Bush's longer range objective, like Bill Clinton's, is to persuade America's European allies to think globally and be willing to contribute troops and financing under NATO for peace-enforcing missions outside of Europe. NATO has recently taken over responsibility for providing security in large parts of Afghanistan. But will Europeans join Washington in additional peace-enforcing missions, even if some may not obtain U.N. authorization, as occurred on Kosovo?
The sluggish economies currently plaguing France, Germany, Italy, and Spain make it doubtful they will increase defense budgets in order to join in expanded NATO operations.
Massive strikes recently in France and Britain and problems faced by all European governments regarding structural impediments to economic growth raise the question whether Europe can overcome a welfare mentality that permeates public attitudes toward government.
Robert Samuelson, Washington Post columnist, wrote recently: "To anyone who cares about Europe's future, the French demonstrations and street riots protesting the government's new labor law must be profoundly disturbing." ("The French in Denial," March 28). Claiming that what occurs in France is symptomatic of a European-wide problem, he argues that "the fierce attachment to these costly and self-defeating programs prevents Europe from preparing for a future that is inevitable."
For America, with its global military and political commitments, the question needs to be addressed: Should Europe be downgraded as a major foreign policy priority if only a few countries, such as Britain and Italy, are prepared to support U.S. strategic objectives in the Middle East and the Far East? The answer, regrettably, is probably yes.
File last modified on Sunday, 10-APR-2006 8:33 PM EST