U.S. Forces in Europe

November 11, 1991

If, my friends, your ultimate aim is to provide independently for your own defense, the time to tell us is today.

Good for George Bush. With French President Francois Mitterrand shooting ironic Gallic barbs at the American military presence that has protected his country all these many years, and with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl wavering between his contradictory commitments to Paris and Washington, it was indeed time for an American president to speak up.

At the Rome summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, it was imperative for the Atlantic Alliance to transform its mission in light of the disintegration of the Soviet empire. No longer arrayed in massive force along an Iron Curtain that has ceased to exist, NATO's armies must become smaller, more mobile and less dependent on nuclear weaponry. There is a world of uncertainty out there -- a world in which Soviet nukes could wind up in the hands of passionately ethnic republics, in which new Saddams can arise with access to long-range missiles carrying warheads of mass destruction, in which the old Soviet bloc could become Yugoslavia writ large.

Given this situation, the United States has every right to know what its allies intend. Britain is steady, standing up for the "Anglo-Saxon" connection loathed by France. But Britain is only reluctantly part of a Europe in which the continental powers are uniting politically and economically.

France for decades has resented U.S. military dominance in NATO, its discontent hardly mitigated by the knowledge that U.S. forces were its liberation in two world wars and its guarantee against Soviet attack in the Cold War that followed. It pulled out of the NATO military command in the mid-Sixties. And now, with the alliance in transition, it has lured Germany into a mischievous project to create a Franco-German army corps perhaps 50,000 strong that would be separate and apart from NATO. Even Manfred Woerner, a former German defense minister who is now secretary-general of NATO, has said the idea makes little sense.

Predictably, after President Bush's broadside, all the Europeans saluted with the usual bromides about trans-Atlantic unity. Mr. Bush could leave Rome declaring: "European and American security is indivisible and the United States will maintain its commitment to Europe in the new era."

Only at their peril should Americans take these assurances literally. Although British Prime Minister John Major asserted that France had been "isolated" on the issue of a separate European force, the Germans are still signed on. The alliance is a long way from sorting out how and where NATO ends and a European defense "pillar" begins. As commercial rivalry between the European Community and the North American Free Trade Association intensifies, domestic political reactions to tensions over the U.S. military presence in Europe will resonate harshly on both sides of the Atlantic.

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