An ocean apart on defense

April 30, 2002|By Borut Grgic and Alan Isenberg

WASHINGTON - The trans-Atlantic partnership has taken a step backward.

With a few exceptions, camaraderie following the Sept. 11 attacks has faded, and what was viewed as an opportunity for multilateralism and cooperation has given way to new bickering and tension.

The Europeans are openly annoyed with what they perceive as American simplicity and obsession with military might, while the Americans are growing tired of a "toothless" Europe timid in its engagement abroad.

The tensions do not come without precedent. But their significance and severity have become uncomfortably caustic in the post-Sept. 11 world.

Why? To begin with, the two sides see today's threats differently. Whereas two-thirds of America suffered sleepless nights in the months after Sept. 11, only 18 percent of the citizens of the European Union saw future terrorist attacks as "certain," according to Eurobarometer, the official EU polling service. For the Europeans, Sept. 11 doesn't measure up to the Soviet menace; for Americans, it was almost worse.

Where the United States attempts to eradicate the sources of its vulnerability, Europe seeks to engage them economically and politically and, in doing so, to mitigate the threats. Europe considers the intentions of its foes, whereas America assesses their capabilities.

Europe looks at intentions, America argues, because it lacks the might to take a capabilities-oriented strategic position. America looks at capabilities, says Europe, because it is too trigger-happy to see the bigger picture.

Historically, Europeans are suspicious of grandiose claims that technological leaps forward will make a significant difference in their security. During the Cold War, Europe relied increasingly on U.S. protection beyond the continent, focusing its energies inward and building armies for territorial defense. Power projection was seen as the "stuff better left to the Americans." Consequently, European strategic horizons narrowed.

Where Europe's high prime on fostering "civil society" leads to security initiatives that favor dialogue, dM-itente and material incentives, America opts for might.

Americans go far abroad to protect and promote their vital interests, and military action is frequently the tactic of choice. That means linking terrorism to weapons of mass destruction and perceiving the development of such weapons by rogue state actors as a direct existential threat. That means - despite European objections - removing Saddam Hussein.

So when Europe refuses to spend on defense, Americans roll their eyes and spend for them; the United States accounts for 40 percent of defense spending in the world.

Moreover, America spends better than Europe: Total EU defense expenditures account for half of what America spends, but the Europeans get only one-tenth of American capabilities - a 10 percent bang for a 50 percent buck. Where Europe's research and development spending is in decline (2 percent over the last year), the Pentagon budget for next year includes a $5.4 billion (or 10.9 percent) increase in its research allowance.

This status quo, with Europe as the whiny child and America as the bullying sheriff, is no longer strategically feasible. Europe is losing its power to affect American decisions. America wants to work with its allies but is more willing than ever to go it alone in the face of continued European military weakness.

The strategic gap will never be closed, but this may be our last chance to build a bridge over it. Here's what it takes to build it:

Europe simply must have - as soon as possible - command, control and communications systems that are interoperable with U.S. counterparts, and other technological improvements, such as precision-guided munitions and an independent global positioning system.

America, in turn, must do more to facilitate "the process of European defense modernization. By easing unnecessary restrictions on technology transfer and industrial cooperation, Washington can improve the quality of the capabilities available," NATO Secretary-General George Robertson said recently.

The United States also must do a better job of assuring Europe that its efforts will result in greater decision-making ability, and must recognize the valuable contributions that Europe already makes - an area in which President Bush has not done as well as he could.

Europe will spend, but it needs a stake in the profits. America will listen, but only to a partner with teeth.

Borut Grgic and Alan Isenberg are on staff at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

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