PARIS -- TENSION AND distrust are now overriding factors in Washington's relations
with its European allies. The initial European response to last September's terrorist
attacks on New York and Washington - a tightening of alliance links - has been
wasted by the United States.
The US press is given mild and conciliatory messages about the underlying firmness
of trans-Atlantic cooperation in the war against terrorism and the unimportance
of European criticisms, but these reassurances are not borne out by conversations
with European leaders or in analyses in the mainstream European press. Criticism
and apprehension about the consequences of US policies prevail. In private there
is consistent criticism. In public, nothing serious is said or done by the European
It might seem that Americans could therefore ignore what the Europeans think
or say in the belief that European objections to US policies make no difference.
The Europeans will eventually fall in line. They have no real alternative. This
time, that might be a dangerously complacent conclusion, because the Europeans
do have alternatives, explosive ones. They could overturn the post-Cold War alignment
tomorrow and do so to their own probable political and economic profit.
They do not themselves understand their power. Few among Europe's leaders seem
to grasp that if the European NATO governments and public indeed object to a US
attack on Iraq, they can prevent it, or block it for many months, while accomplishing
a transformation in the Middle Eastern situation.
Few understand that the European Union does not have to wait until it has built
up its feeble military forces in order to have an independent world policy with
independent international influence to rival that of the United States. The world
today is not one in which military forces are the most effective means of power.
This is already evident in the commercial and economic relations of Brussels
between Washington. Washington cannot dismiss European corporate strength and
economic competition. It is compelled to deal with the European Union as a powerful
trade rival to whom it has to make concessions.
The same thing could be accomplished in political relations if the European
NATO allies, or even some of them, were to take a simple but decisive step: reaffirm
that, as its founding treaty states, NATO is an alliance of independent and politically
The Europeans could refuse US use of NATO's European assets in an attack on
Iraq on the grounds that such an attack does not fall under the agreements on
countering terrorism that produced NATO's antiterrorism resolution of last September.
To do this would not destroy NATO. It might even save it by recreating in it
a political equilibrium. Sooner or later the European powers will have to deal
with the consequences of US unilateralism, and if the European public feels strongly
about Iraq (and indeed about the Israeli-Palestine situation), now could be the
best occasion to act.
The fundamental reason that NATO will not be destroyed is that the United States
needs NATO more than Europe does.
NATO no longer serves to protect Europe from any threat. The threat is gone.
NATO provides the indispensable material and strategic infrastructure for US military
and strategic deployments throughout Europe, Eurasia, the Middle East, and Africa.
NATO gives the United States a military presence, usually with extraterritorial
privileges, in every one of the alliance member countries and in most of the former
Warsaw Pact and Soviet countries that are members of the Partnership for Peace.
Washington needs NATO because without NATO the United States has no legitimate
claim to a say in European internal matters. Richard Holbrooke once said (to some
European indignation) that the United States is a European power. So it is, so
long as NATO exists.
A polite mutiny by some or all of the European NATO countries on the question
of war with Iraq would certainly produce what Saddam Hussein might describe as
the mother of all trans-Atlantic rows, but in the end the United State would back
After such a mutiny, NATO would be a different alliance. After that, the European
allies would certainly never again have reason to complain that Washington was
paying no attention to them. But do the Europeans really want this? Or is it all
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company