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Trade Issues, Security Concerns Require Clinton to Rethink U.S.-Europe Alliance

By William Drozdiak
The Washington Post


As the Clinton administration searches for a new transatlantic strategy, Americans and Europeans once again find themselves obsessed with the problem of yesterday's enemy. Just as they struggled with repairing a shattered Europe in the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949, U.S. and European officials are now faced with the pressing needs of Russia and other remnants of the Soviet bloc. Their response to those nations will go far toward determining the future of their own alliance.

But unlike the post-World War II era, when friends and foes alike looked to the United States to take the initiative in rebuilding a devastated continent, the Atlantic relationship now seems fraught with jealous rivalries and petulant misunderstandings.

The allies not only seem unable to coordinate their strategy on dealing with former adversaries but also confounded by increasingly grave conflicts over trade and security issues. The sole area of consensus seems to be the alliance's abiding importance, European and American diplomats say. "Nobody dares to imagine what the world would be like without the Atlantic alliance," said a senior European Community official.

The alliance's foundations have been rocked by crises of confidence on both sides of the Atlantic. In Europe, the goal of political and economic union has been shaken by public doubts about the Maastricht Treaty and the impact of global recession. Germany has failed to live up to its leadership potential because of the draining costs of reunification. With weak governments at the helm in Bonn, Paris, London and Rome, no country has been able to offer the kind of bold new visions that created the postwar order a generation ago.

In the United States, the Clinton administration's vow to concentrate on a domestic social and economic agenda has revived worries in Europe of "global unilateralism" and a retreat from foreign commitments. The alternating currents in American society, said former French foreign minister Jean-Francois Poncet, "makes us wonder one day whether America will abandon us, and on the next whether it will stifle our quest to assume more control over our destiny."

This kind of schizophrenia, said Leon Brittan, the EC's commissioner for external trade relations, demonstrates that European states have "no real definition" of their own security. In a speech here before he left for Washington this week, Brittan urged EC members to learn the lessons of the "muddle" in the former Yugoslavia and to fortify the transatlantic military alliance.

"Now that the Cold War is over, the United States is not necessarily going to want to carry on leading the Free World through every conflict that arises," he said. "There will be new areas in which the Community will be expected to take the lead or may even wish to do so of its own accord."

European officials were content to see the United States take the lead in the Persian Gulf War and the Somalia relief effort, but the risk that the conflict in the Balkans could spread appears to have jarred some of them into recognizing they face serious security responsibilities.

"I think many Europeans came to believe that a shooting war on this continent had become inconceivable," a senior U.S. diplomat said. "What's happening in Bosnia is teaching Europeans a lesson, but I'm not sure it's the right one. They still believe that American soldiers will bail them out every time. But you can never have an equal partnership if that's the case, and they should be ready to recognize it."

Similarly, U.S. officials chastize the Europeans for not opening their markets to the nascent free-market democracies of Eastern Europe. They argue that if another Marshall Plan is unaffordable, the least that West Europeans can do is to allow Eastern imports of steel, textiles and meat -- even if it hurts their own farmers.

Besides the squabbles over security and how to help the East, the biggest area of transatlantic conflict now looms in trade, where more than $50 billion worth of goods and a global pact under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade appear held hostage to a test of wills between Washington and Brussels.

As the world's leading commercial power, the EC has become accustomed over the years to threats of bruising trade wars with the United States. But as a global recession deepens and a world trade pact looks more unlikely, the possible damage from a major transatlantic trade conflict appears ominous.

In the past, the United States and its European allies would be inclined to reach an expeditious compromise because of fears that a trade conflict could spill over into the security arena by eroding alliance solidarity in the face of the Soviet threat.

But now, with no such immediate danger, the alliance is taking its internal conflicts into uncharted territory.

"If Boris Yeltsin falls and Russia returns to a totalitarian form of rule, I wonder whether we could recover our old cohesion," said a European ambassador at NATO headquarters. "We probably could, but it would be a high price to pay to find out."