US Wary as Europe Ponders Defense Ties ; Officials Would Support the Move but Fear It May Limit America's Global

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For years the US has urged its European allies to revamp their military forces and play a greater role in the Continent's security. Kosovo and Bosnia, critics say, are just the latest examples of Europe relying too heavily on American might.

But now that a joint European military identity is closer than ever to forming, officials here are reacting with increasing caution.

"The US has always urged the Europeans to get their acts together," says Lawrence Martin, a global strategy expert for the Center for Strategic and International Studies here. "But they get nervous when it looks like it will happen."

A stronger European defense organization is developing on several parallel tracks. The most significant, perhaps, is the establishment of a foreign and security policy office within the European Union, to be headed by former NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana. Although the office is not a military component, it is seen as a natural precursor to one.

Already a new attitude is visible. The 15-country European Union, formed as an economic alliance, most recently suspended armaments cooperation with Indonesia within 48 hours of the outbreak of the East Timor crisis.

US concerns

While the US generally supports enhanced European defense, officials are concerned that, if it develops too far, it may take away from their global decisionmaking abilities. And, a European military formation could alienate key US allies in fragile parts of the world, such as Turkey, which is on the outskirts of the Balkans.

"The biggest danger is that the Europeans feel like they can go out and do something on their own, and it doesn't [end up] working," says an administration official speaking on the condition of anonymity. "We could lose support for working with them [in the future]."

The fate of any future European military formation would likely hinge on its relationship with NATO, the 19-member transatlantic alliance that launched air strikes in Yugoslavia and has taken on the unofficial role of European protector.

While NATO was formed after World War II to counter the Soviet Bloc, the EU is an exclusive alliance with the goal of matching US economic power. American officials insist that any European forces complement NATO - and not drain its resources, contradict its mission, or step on any of its members.

"We would not want to see a European Strategic Defense Initiative (ESDI) that comes into being first within NATO, but then grows out of NATO and finally grows away from NATO," said Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott last week. "That would lead to an ESDI that initially duplicates NATO but that could eventually compete with NATO."

Despite the pitfalls, the US stands to gain by having stronger allies in Europe. They would not have to take on as many risky and expensive assignments, and they also could shed their increasingly unpopular image as the world's police force. …