SIENA, Italy — The latest in a series of meetings on reform in the function of the European Union, sponsored by the Luxembourg Institute for European and International Studies, concluded here last week at the splendid restored palazzo of Nobel prize-winning Canadian economist Robert Mundell.

The meeting of nearly 40 EU academic analysts and non-academic observers, coming when it did, during the present crisis in the world economy, inevitably made economic and financial issues its principal subjects. The collective political inhibitions of the EU inserted themselves into the discussion, as they always do because of the institutional and national tensions within the EU, now made up of an unwieldy 27 states, and the persistent disagreement among individual member governments when confronting Washington’s established commitments and policy intentions with respect to major world political and security issues.

An American naturally finds this of interest as posing the question of Europe’s fundamental nature and the present state of its relation to Washington. Henry Kissinger’s invariably cited demand to have a telephone number for Europe now has been answered with 27 numbers to call, each with a national prefix. The new High Representative for External Relations, Catherine Ashton, said in a recent interview that the progress since the Lisbon Treaty, which entered into force last December, has been that Washington need only call her office number, where a mechanical voice will reply: “Press 1 for Britain’s policy; Press 2 for Germany’s policy; Press 3. …” In short, there still is no European foreign and security policy as such, meaning no agreed-upon definition of collective interests and goals.

There indeed are EU policies for “common security and defense,” as the subject was renamed in the Lisbon Treaty. In a recent publication of the EU’s Institute for Security Studies (EUISS), “European Security and Defense Policy: The First 10 Years,” 23 such EU missions are listed as having taken place during the first decade in which the policy has functioned, and are described and analyzed in detail. The number of missions might surprise casual observers of the EU. The first operational mission was in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the next in Macedonia (FYROM as it is spelled in Greek), the next in the Congo. Aceh, Indonesia; Moldova, Ukraine; Iraq; the Palestinian territories; and Chad were among the others.

However, these are not properly “security and defense” missions but peacekeeping operations, which is where the EU has been able to operate with considerable efficacy, applying its civil development and nation-building experience inside the newer members of the EU itself, and the particular European resource of its traditional paramilitary police institutions, such as the Italian carabinieri and the French gendarmerie, with long experience in conducting and training for police operations inside civil society.

These also have not been autonomous EU security operations. All were conducted as part of larger international peacemaking or peacekeeping missions involving other international institutions: the U.N., NATO, etc.

This is not quite what Britain and France had in mind in 1998 when they launched the agreement on military cooperation, the St. Malo initiative, that was the foundation for EU defense and security cooperation. They proposed a European military command and staff together with committed forces from Europe’s armies that could rapidly respond to military emergencies and other needs.

This was quickly attacked by the United States, NATO headquarters and Atlanticist members of the EU as a duplication of NATO resources, and since France was involved, as sowing European-American rivalry. It was to them a revival of Gaullism, which certainly was not the intention of London, which believed that the two largest European military powers should augment European power and potential by cooperation, joint planning and staff, and combined resources and rationalized spending. The opponents of a permanent EU command and staff won the political battle, so that the international role today of “Europe” remains to pay bills, and, via NATO, supply military auxiliaries to the United States in operations that NATO designates. Yet military autonomy would ordinarily be considered the fundamental requirement for European political sovereignty.

The expenditure and size of American military forces, dwarfing rivals and commonly described as greater than all the rest of the world combined, is misleading in that the United States runs a race with itself. With the Cold War over, there is no superpower challenge to the U.S. While the level of major-nation European defense expenditure in terms of percentage of GNP is considerably lower than that of the U.S., the EU’s aggregate GNP is larger than that of the U.S. The difference is that the EU nations are not running trillion-dollar wars against Muslim countries, nor interested in doing so beyond the grudging — and falling — contributions some NATO states still make to U.S. operations in Afghanistan.

The European Union deliberately has chosen not to challenge the United States as a military or political superpower. This is convenient for most and saves Europe a great deal of money. It is prudent, since no one knows what the U.S. would do if the Europeans undertook a role that challenged American primacy.

It also, however, carries a risk because the U.S. now experiences a period of grave internal political dysfunction and tension, and what has to be described as a rising militarism (both Gens. David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal have indirectly indicated their presidential ambitions). National policy is largely set by the Pentagon, as in the “surge” in Afghanistan. Yet there is every reason to expect that the war in Afghanistan will be “lost” (in terms of defined American aims), and Iraq may again descend into violence while American forces remain in that country. All of this is disregarded in EU circles — at least publicly. I often wonder how many Europeans might think otherwise in private.

Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy,” at

© 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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