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Europe May Find It Can Go It Alone : Fear That U.S. Will Cut Back Propels Idea of Common Defense

<i> Ernest Conine is a Times editorial writer</i>

The “Europeanization” of European defense is not yet an idea whose time has come. Despite the potential benefits to the United States of an independent and self-reliant Europe, most defense experts in this country are still suspicious of the idea. And even Europeans who favor the notion recognize that the obstacles are formidable.

As French President Francois Mitterrand has observed, however, “If one looks, one finds.” And some of our best friends are looking at alternatives to the present American-led alliance.

In February former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of West Germany, with the support of former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, proposed the creation of a joint French-German army of more than 1 million soldiers under French command. Such a force, he said, could deter a Warsaw Pact invasion of Western Europe and lift the burden of defending Western Europe from the United States.

It’s easy to dismiss the idea as sensation-mongering by two statesmen who are no longer in power. But the proposal is indicative of deeper currents.

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Almost six months ago the Economist of London, which is not exactly an anti-American sheet, reported on the basis of polls that a majority of Englishmen, Frenchmen and Italians “would apparently replace the link to the United States with a common European defense or a purely national . . . defense.”

In April it was announced that France and Britain, Europe’s two independent nuclear powers, would make a joint study of problems facing their nuclear strike forces.

In September France and West Germany, which have been exchanging information on defense planning for years, will conduct their biggest-ever joint maneuvers under a combined command.

On June 19 West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, a pro-NATO stalwart, proposed the creation of a joint French-German brigade of 3,000 men. Mitterrand quickly endorsed the proposal, and last week senior French and West German officers began exploring the idea at a meeting in Paris.

Meanwhile, Alfred Dregger, floor leader of the governing Christian Democrats in the Bundestag, has called for the creation of a European security system in which France would extend its nuclear protection to West Germany.

None of this means that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is on the verge of collapse. Both the Kohl and Mitterrand governments have been at pains to say that the U.S. nuclear umbrella is crucial for the defense of Europe. However, there is a distinct feeling of unease among European political leaders and defense professionals, as well as among those with pacifist inclinations.

This unease has several roots. For many young Germans it stems from an active dislike of the United States and a growing conviction that West Germany does not control its own destiny.

Fundamentally pro-alliance leaders resent the fact that Western Europe’s political influence has not grown in proportion to its economic strength, and they know that it won’t as long as Europe depends so heavily on the United States for its security.

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Perhaps most important, there is a loss of faith in the quality of American leadership. There is also concern, nourished by recent U.S.-Soviet negotiations on arms control, that America has begun a process of nuclear disengagement from Europe.

The European members of NATO have an impressive list of assets that could, in theory, provide the material basis for the “Europeanization” of European defense.

Collectively the West Europeans have a large, technologically advanced economy that is potentially capable of sustaining military forces large enough to deter the Soviets from aggressive temptations.

The British and French have independent nuclear forces that are tiny compared to those of the Soviet Union and America. However, the Anglo-French arsenals will loom larger if present plans for expansion to 1,000 warheads are carried out and the superpowers reduce their own nuclear forces.

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Although the fact is not always appreciated in America, the Europeans already contribute more to the alliance in terms of battle-ready manpower and conventional land and air forces than we do.

As of now, however, the obstacles to a do-it-yourself European defense loom larger than the assets.

The first hurdle is for the French to publicly dedicate their nuclear deterrent to the defense of West Germany--something that they are visibly loath to do. And even if they did the problem would not be solved. Veteran defense analyst Albert Wohlstetter observes that if the Europeans find it increasingly hard to believe that the Americans would risk their own nuclear destruction in “dying sting” retaliation for a Soviet attack on Europe, there is even less reason for the allies to think that the self-centered French would do so.

Even more basic, a more or less independent European defense would require a political will--so far missing--to roll back the welfare state in order to pay for the enormously expensive conventional forces that would be needed for a non-nuclear deterrent to Soviet aggression.

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West Germany’s minority Social Democrats, with distinct echoes from Scandinavia and out-of-office Laborites in London, have proclaimed that if elected they will work to reshape NATO forces in a mode that would be even less threatening to the Soviet Union.

These neutralist instincts would, if anything, grow stronger if the Soviets reacted strongly against the stirrings of European nationalism.

Then there is the matter of national ego. An independent European defense raises the question of who would be in charge; it’s unlikely that West Germans and Britons would forever acquiesce in French leadership.

The bottom-line reality nevertheless is that present arrangements are no longer consistent with economic and political realities--including the fact that an economically strapped America may soon feel compelled to reduce its commitments to Europe for the simple reason that it can no longer afford them.

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It’s worth remembering the old saying that where there’s a will there’s a way. If the will keeps growing, the way will be found.


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