It's foreign policy, stupid]: Washington's botched approach to Europe could put the alliance at risk, says Jonathan Eyal

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IF WASHINGTON'S claims are to be believed, 1994 will be the year of Europe. Apart from Monday's Nato summit, President Bill Clinton plans three further European forays in the next 12 months. Yet the frequency with which the White House reminds the Europeans about the President's many coming engagements is a sure sign of transatlantic problems.

The Administration claims that, despite all the criticism, its foreign policy remains a success. Washington is now at the forefront of efforts to reform the Nato alliance and its unstinting support for Russia's reforms is bearing fruit. In fact, the last year has been marked by a litany of errors and badly executed policies which have only increased the Europeans' doubts about the Administration's competence.

A president elected on the slogan 'It's the economy, stupid]' displayed little interest in foreign matters and an alarming capacity to giggle every time he answered foreign policy questions. Ronald Reagan was hardly an intellectual giant, but he compensated for his deficiencies by choosing the right people for the appropriate slots. Not so with Mr Clinton. For months on end, the Administration did not fill the middle-level positions in the State Department, and those expected to run foreign and security policies assumed that they were still on the university benches. Hefty documents poured out of the White House, all advocating 'engagement' or the 'enlargement of democracy'. Beautifully crafted, they nevertheless remained irrelevant: abstract notions intended to paper over confusion and weak personalities. Secretary of State Warren Christopher remains the lawyer he always was: good with a client's brief; useless without one.

Most of the animosity generated in transatlantic relations remains of the worst kind: carelessness born out of sloppiness. Mr Christopher's remarks last November that America's policies have been unduly Eurocentric and need to be redirected towards Asia was followed by a flood of statistics on trade, all supposedly indicating that, at least in economic terms, Europe's importance is eclipsed by the potential of the Pacific 'tigers'. While it is true that America trades more with Asia than with Europe, the same applies to the European Union, which exported goods worth dollars 73bn ( pounds 50bn) to Asia last year, compared with only dollars 67bn ( pounds 46bn) to the United States. Constructing a new security pecking order out of this is childish and counter-productive.

Furthermore, co-ordination on foreign policy with the Europeans continues to be appalling. The Germans, for instance, who sent troops to Somalia after a long and anguished debate at home, learnt of Mr Clinton's decision to withdraw US soldiers from the area not in a diplomatic communication but from the media. Careless talk, coupled with sudden shifts: Mr Clinton and his foreign policy advisers have given the concept of megaphone diplomacy a new meaning.

Washington's dispute with the Europeans over the handling of the Yugoslav war is another example of misunderstandings. Like the Europeans, Mr Clinton thought that the Balkans civil war challenged basic security principles. But, like the Europeans, he wished to see someone else's soldiers punish the Serbs. One moment the Administration swore it would not tolerate any further outrages; the next day its officials asserted that Bosnia was not, after all, America's concern. The result was the worst of both worlds.

Insisting on the principle that aggression must not be allowed to succeed, Washington scuppered two peace plans for Yugoslavia but offered no viable alternative apart from the traditional drop of food parcels intended to expiate everyone's consciences. An offer of peace- keeping forces was quietly withdrawn, but this did not prevent the Administration from unleashing a barrage of accusations against spineless Europeans, supposedly unable to 'solve' conflicts in their own backyard. Have the Americans done better in their own vicinity, in places such as Cuba, Haiti, or much of Latin America? The dispute over Yugoslavia would have been entirely avoidable if Mr Clinton had understood that, the moment he ruled out the introduction of American ground forces in the Balkans, he also forfeited the right to lead the West in that conflict.

Yet there is a more fundamental problem with Mr Clinton's European policy which the tussle over Yugoslavia also exposed. Americans respond well to grand visions and clearly defined dangers, such as those prevailing during the Cold War. The US, however, is ill- equipped to deal with the much more ambiguous challenges of today's Europe. For a country created by people who chose to leave their nationalism behind, ethnic and territorial disputes are regarded as diseases of the past, problems artificially encouraged by unscrupulous leaders. Remove Slobodan Milosevic and people in Yugoslavia would live happily ever after; support Boris Yeltsin and all will be well. The search for simple solutions for Europe's complex problems is an old American trait. Current American policies reveal the same mixture of New World idealism and detachment from realities.

Mr Clinton's proposal for the reform of Nato is appealing - on the surface. The countries of Eastern Europe cannot join the alliance immediately: the proposed Partnership for Peace programme neither promises nor precludes future membership, but offers all former Communist states time to accustom themselves to military co-operation with the West. Yet, far from avoiding a new division of Europe, as Washington likes to claim, the plan simply maintains the old East-West division, the lowest common denominator on which all Nato partners can agree.

But the problem with the Partnership for Peace goes much deeper. The US Administration assumes that it could dictate the pace of change in Nato, carefully calibrating its interests against commitments. Far from it. Washington or London may have the luxury of musing about the future, but Germany, as the frontline state most exposed to potential trouble from the East, does not.

Either Nato tackles these problems collectively, or it will become irrelevant for the most important European member, Germany. By refusing to understand this, the Americans may be forfeiting their ability to influence European events for a long time to come.

Leaving the East Europeans in suspended animation will bring no security to either Russia or the West. Without a firm anchoring in Nato, the region will only descend into turmoil and a competition for spheres of influence. The Americans have an opportunity to fashion Europe's new security structure, but seem unable to seize it.

Having announced his Partnership for Peace without consulting anyone, Mr Clinton is now reduced to hoping that the East Europeans will accept this paper exercise, thereby sparing his embarrassment. But it is curious that a plan intended to solve the security problems of the region is mistrusted by precisely the people who are expected to benefit from it. Partnership for Peace will achieve only a brief postponement of Europe's real security debate.

Yet everything pales into insignificance compared with Washington's relations with Russia. Its singleminded obsession with supporting Mr Yeltsin is not a policy but a religion, faith that Russia will become a democracy, because it must become a democracy. Having spent 40 years confronting a strong Soviet Union, America is now concentrating on appeasing a weak Russia. The Russian economy is collapsing not because it was subjected to shock therapy, but because it was exposed to little real economic change. Now, though, the US is counselling a slowdown in the pace of economic reform, and blames international financial institutions for failing to help. But it was Washington which first insisted on strict aid conditions, and it was the White House which limited the powers of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to extend aid according to political rather than purely financial considerations.

Moreover, America's concentration on limiting the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the only systems that can hit the US directly, has succeeded only in alienating Ukraine. What would the US do if, after giving up its nuclear arsenal, Ukraine were destabilised from within by the same techniques Russia has already employed in the Caucasian republics and Central Asia? Send Secretary of State Warren Christopher on a 'good will' mission or convene a solemn meeting of the Partnership for Peace? A policy which consistently views Russia as the central interlocutor and conveniently ignores Mr Yeltsin's ever-growing demands for a sphere of influence throughout the former Soviet empire will lead to disaster.

To be sure, confusion about foreign policy is not confined to the United States. But the US is not just any state; leadership of the West carries special responsibilities and a high price. By seeking to conduct a foreign policy on the cheap, by doggedly upholding the rosiest of scenarios about the future of Russia, Mr Clinton's policies may end in catastrophe. The chances are that the biggest question this 'domestic' president will face in his next electoral campaign will be 'Who lost Europe?' East and West. By then, something considerably more than giggles will be required.

The author is Director of Studies at the Royal United Services Institute, London.

(Photographs omitted)