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NATO-EU Conflict Flares Up as Russia Enters the Game

Russia, Not the U.S., Holds the Key

16 December 2000

Up until now, it was just 'friendly input'. Last Wednesday, 13 December, it officially turned into a 'warning'. Through the loud-mouth lips of U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the U.S. made it absolutely clear that it does not desire to see the creation of a unified European defense force that would function independently of NATO. "The United States will stay in Europe", Albright said, and will not allow for NATO to become a "relic of history [...]. The stakes", she continued, "are simply too high". Evidently, Ms. Albright sees little, if any, open space for negotiation on this issue.

And yet, things were rolling fine up until the end of November. At that time, U.S. President Bill Clinton even Okayed an article written by British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and published in the British Sunday newspaper The Observer. The article, which supported the European defense force, stated that "[t]here is no room for complacency. European forces must become more mobile, deployable and sustainable. They must improve their lift, logistics and intelligence capacities".

But things changed almost overnight. Later on that week, the Russians, too, entered the game, offering the European defense force their full backing and even unconditional military assistance. The Americans didn't expect that, but it came as no surprise to the Europeans. A few weeks earlier, on October 28th, Russian President Vladimir Putin had arrived in Paris for a 4-day visit, officially described as an "E.U.-Russia summit". It was during that summit when the Russians gave their personal and overwhelming support to France's plan for a European defense force that would act independently of NATO and, more importantly, the U.S. The diplomatic significance of that support was so stunning, that the French spent most of the 4 days discussing with the Russians the details of a European defense force. Even the Chechen problem, which has been dominating almost all high-level meetings between the Russian and Western officials in recent years, was pushed aside. French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine told journalists that "Chechnya's fate was not the central subject of the visit". During the meetings, numerous comments were made to the French press stressing the strategic importance of Russia for the future of Europe. The director of the French Institute of International Relations, Thierry de Montbrial, characteristically declared that "Europe and Russia are geographically inseparable [...]. Russia is a threat to us now because of its weakness and no longer because of its force. It's in our interest for Russia to get back on its feet".

To make things worse for the Americans, during the recent E.U. summit in Nice, France, the countries that had been commissioned by Albright to propose a more NATO/U.S.-friendly European defense force (Britain and, to a lesser extent, Germany) found themselves with their backs against the wall. With virtually no exception, all other E.U. member states supported France's proposition of a European defense force that will operate within Europe as it sees fit, thus significantly marginalizing U.S./NATO impact on military decision-making.

On the surface, the anti-American inclination of E.U. member states would appear to be connected to the traumatic experience of NATO's bombardment of Yugoslavia. The Americans are indeed NATO allies, but nobody in Western Europe (including the majority of Blair's U.K. government) feels really comfortable with the increasing American military build-up in the Balkans. A quick look at Bosnia, Macedonia and Kosovo (let alone Greece, Turkey, Germany and the occasional naval fleets) shows that Europe is experiencing the largest U.S. military presence since the end of WWII. This is seen by many (France included) as unacceptable, especially at a time when the Americans are already considering a large-scale military withdrawal from southeast Asia due to increasing Chinese, Korean and Japanese objections. Indeed, some of this tension between E.U. and U.S./NATO has plainly to do with turf wars: South and Central America is the backyard of the U.S., while Europe has traditionally been the territory of European bullies. That's the way it has been for centuries and that is what many in the E.U. wish to see return.

Yet, the reasons behind this E.U./NATO conflict go deeper than that. It is multiply important for the E.U. (and France has made that absolutely clear) to be able to achieve unified administrative control which would have a security-oriented psychological effect on its subject populations. In other words, the E.U. community must be able to feel safe, strong and secure within its borders. If that is not achieved, then the E.U. will remain peripheral to U.S.-led global developments; it will be unable to seriously challenge U.S. global policy when it needs to most, i.e. when it finds itself in disagreement with the political, financial and military blueprints of American dominance. As a large-scale multinational institution, the E.U. was not designed to operate in an uni-polar global environment. There, the possibilities for flexible policy combinations would be, and in fact are, hampered by the machinations of a sole superpower, be it capitalist or communist.

Considering the above, it is important to stress that the timing of the E.U. defense debate is anything but coincidental. The leadership of the U.S. foreign policy and intelligence apparatus has been partially distracted with electoral developments at home, while China and, especially, Russia are both re-emerging as strong and defiant global policy leaders. This is characteristically illustrated by the dramatic Russian-led near-collapse of sanctions against Iraq, which has been occurring throughout the past 6 weeks.

The E.U. wants in on the big game and it is not alone. Russia wants in, too. And, more importantly, both want it bad enough to tolerate each other in a military alliance outside the realm of U.S.-dominated NATO. Only a few days ago, in a speech that no U.S. media even dared to report, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Aleksander Yakovenko told journalists that "Russia attaches great significance to cooperation with the European Union. We hope that the reforms taking place in both Russia and the E.U. will promote our further rapprochement and the development of a strategic partnership, the formation of a true multi-polar world order".

And he's not kidding. Already, European countries that have benefited most from American favorable bias throughout the postwar period are feeling uncomfortable just by considering the political prospects of an autonomous European defense force. On December 14th, Turkey (a full member of NATO) decided to block the advancement of the E.U.'s defense plans by denying NATO-controlled logistical and military support to any future operations of such a force. The reason, according to Turkish military officials, was that "Ankara fears that the E.U. force could become involved in areas where Turkey has interests, such as Cyprus or the Balkans". And they're not kidding either: what would Turkey do in Cyprus and the Aegean, and even in Iraq and Kurdistan, without American diplomatic and military support for its systematic human rights and international law abuses?

The situation is getting increasingly tense and the effect of Russian involvement makes things even more volatile. Even if the French, who are currently presiding over the E.U., fail to have their plans for a European defense force realized, then the Swedes, who are about to take the E.U. presidency over from the French, will manage to do so. If anything, the Swedes are even more favorable to the idea of an independent European defense force than are the French. The sole remaining path for the Americans is to try to persuade Russia that it will stand to lose more than it will gain by supporting the defense visions of the E.U. But this will be anything but easy for George W. Bush's new administration.

Time will show. Yet, no matter what happens, one thing is certain: the path to resolution, or to conflict, passes once again right through the middle of downtown Moscow.

© The News Insider 2000

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