This spongy, peaceful creature, Europe, needs survival strategies, not an army

The Late Salvador Allende, president of Chile, was always being told by his supporters that "the masses will defend you". In private, he used to ask his friends: "How many masses does it take to stop a tank?"

This was the right question, for a few months later he was overthrown and killed by a military coup. But today, in the wake of the Amsterdam summit of the European Union, I feel like turning the question round. How many masses - or Commission resolutions, or qualified majority votes by foreign ministers - does it take to get a tank moving?

The Maastricht decisions in 1991 called for a "common foreign and defence policy". But will it - can it - should it ever happen? As a critical Europhile, I think that it can't and shouldn't. But the question ought to be put more closely. Maastricht required "the eventual framing of a common defence policy which might in time lead to a common defence". In other words, there is policy and then there is carrying a policy out.

I have no difficulty in imagining that the Union could develop a rather minimalist joint foreign policy, and perhaps even evolve a European Foreign Minister. (Henry Kissinger has always complained that there was no such person to ring up.) I can even imagine a joint defence policy, speaking "with a single voice" to condemn or propose this or that. But what defies fantasy is the idea that the voice will ever say: "Go get them!", or "Send in the Paras!".

The European Union, to adapt Yeats, is not a rough beast but a soft one slouching towards Brussels to be born. It will never be the kind of creature that can lash out hard and fast. All proposals for a "European Army" or a new European Defence Community are hopeless because they deny the beast's true nature.

The Yugoslavia disaster ought to have made this nature clear, to those who hoped the Union was a fierce lion of justice and to those who feared it was a young tyrannosaurus. In 1991, the EU's governments thought they saw a splendid chance of displaying a common foreign policy and defence "identity". They would put Yugoslavia together again - on their own. "This is the hour of Europe, not of the United States," boasted Jacques Poos, Luxembourg's foreign minister. There followed a tragedy of dithering, cowardice and obstruction. Slavonia, Bosnia and Krajina burned; more than 100,000 people lost their lives and nearly 3 million lost their homes. The formation of the "Contact Group" in summer 1994, calling in Russia and the United States, was Europe's admission of failure.

Back came the Americans, for the third time in a century, to rescue Europe from its own quarrels. And Europeans ought to realise how reluctantly, and with what bitterness, they returned.

For a generation, the United States has encouraged Europe to take over its own security, and hoped that the project of political union would materialise. So when the Europeans grandly told Washington to leave Yugoslavia to them, the Americans were more relieved than vexed. The Bosnian catastrophe followed. One of its results is that Euroscepticism in the US has spread from the right wing to the liberal left. Leon Wieseltier wrote despairingly in The New Republic that "the West" did not exist; Europe was still a hell of xenophobia and nationalism, and its unity was a delusion.

Why did Europe fail? Some will say, justly, that it did not entirely fail, because the foreign soldiers in Bosnia and the aid agencies they protected saved countless lives. But war and the spread of war were not prevented. The short answer is given in Unfinished Peace, the admirable report of the International Commission on the Balkans: "[The outside powers'] diplomatic interventions, well-meant but for the most part ineffective, lacked credibility because they were not backed by readiness to use military force when events demanded it."

Since 1945, the democracies of Europe have dealt with the danger of war in two ways. The first step was to make war between them impossible. This led to the Treaty of Rome and the European Union. The second step was to deter war from the outside. Here the outcome was the Atlantic Alliance and Nato - military dependence on the United States. Now there is a third kind of war, to which Europe has as yet no answer.

The other day I listened to Mary Kaldor, that brave pioneer of popular resistance to militarism, talking about the coming of low-level "permanent wars". Full-scale national wars, she said, were a thing of the past. Now we faced something that could not even be called "civil war". Instead she named it "privatised violence", which foments ethnic nationalism as its ideology. This form of conflict, controlled by no government, maintains itself through black-marketeering, the drugs trade, arms dealing, the "taxing" of humanitarian aid by robbery and covert supplies from outside powers. It breaks down the very distinction between war and peace.

And then she said something which, from a veteran of the Eighties peace movements, astonished me. "I want to recreate the monopoly of armed violence - at international level." To get war out of warlord hands, it must be returned to the grasp of formal authorities. For Kaldor, this does not mean nation states, the old holders of the monopoly, but supranational or regional bodies. In that sense she could see a purpose for Nato. But only if the pact could redesign its forces and peace-keeping methods to cope with low-level war.

So it's back to Nato then? Without much pleasure, I think it is. But this doesn't mean that American military power is the only effective military instrument for Europe. In the gloom after Bosnia, it seemed like that. Now, though, it looks as if a tolerable fudge of responsibility between the European Nato members and the US is possible. Last year, the pact agreed that Europeans could use Nato forces on special missions without American participation. This has an element of hooey, in that so many of Nato's "assets" are actually American. But it is also an admission of reality. The Americans need a Europe that can handle at least some of its own security problems; the Europeans still need a Nato which is backed and to some extent led by America.

The problem is this obstinate Franco-German hankering for an EU with its own armed forces. It came up again at Amsterdam 10 days ago, as President Chirac and Chancellor Kohl tried to push through a merger between the EU and West European Union, that paper army with no soldiers which pretends to be the "European pillar" of the Atlantic Alliance. Tony Blair was among the leaders who got this merger postponed.

The point is that the Union will never be able to use an army properly, even if it sets one up. This emerging superstate is unlike anything in recent history. It is no clanking monolith of power, but a spongy, peaceful creature of vague outline. It will be rich and imaginative and delightful to live in, but quite incapable of the rapid and ruthless decisions natural to older states and empires. With a wildly diverse future membership of anything between 20 and 30, its compound brain will be hesitant. It will be quick in vision, slow in action.

That is the Union I want. And I also want this beautiful, vulnerable monster to be protected. The Europeans will have to man Nato guns if they want to defend their Union and enforce peace around it. And yet the Chiracs and Kohls are still so lost in the past that they think a great polity incomplete without its own cannon. This runs against the opinion of most of us on the well-trodden peninsula called Europe, who feel we have paid for and served in enough armies already. So how many masses does it take to stop a Helmut Kohl?