THE ANNOUNCEMENT the other day that Europe means to create its own defense structure came with a jolt. What? Europe defending itself? After all these years of relying on Uncle Sam? The prospect of a European military initiative seems improbable on its face, and not demonstrably essential. So much was evident in Europe's close and fruitful cooperation with the United States in the war over Kosovo.

Still, Europe has spent years, even decades, pondering the possibility of going it alone militarily. Many Europeans have felt that was the best way to take command of their own continental destiny and to depend less on the well-intentioned but sometimes erratic uses of American power. These are the roots of the protracted consultation whose most recent fruits were revealed at last week's European Union summit at Cologne. There is soon to be a European defense committee and staff and so on for the purpose of dealing more autonomously with crises touching European interests. Plans for a rapid reaction force are cited. All of this will supposedly happen next year.

The Europeans are always torn at these occasions between their pride at asserting their own "defense identity" and their doubt that they can afford it, or rise above their separate national proclivities, or make it work if they actually were to bring it to life. That accounts for the tentative quality of European commitment to the idea and ensures that the discussion will continue.

Over the years Americans have mildly affirmed the idea of European defense cooperation, even while noting that it comes slowly at best and hoping that it would not provide a distraction from American strategic dominance. In fact, some separation of American and European military planning may occur on its own, as the ever-higher-tech Americans leave Europeans farther and farther behind.

But crisis planning and military modernization constitute only one of Europe's large and competitive choices looming. Balkan reconstruction and drawing Central Europe and eventually the Balkans into an enlarged European Union are also pressing. A strong tie to the United States will surely remain the foundation of Europe's defense.