NATO's air war in Kosovo was the geopolitical equivalent of a coffee break or an April shower for Americans. It came and went quickly, seeming to change nothing fundamental in their lives. But that may not be the case for Europeans and their quest for a larger continental political identity.
War is the formative experience for most important nations and many governing institutions. After doing their worst, humans frequently find in the ashes they have produced reasons to think differently about themselves and their neighbors.
Kosovars and Serbs emerge from the conflict sorting out new national identities forged in the heat of a U.S.-led bombing campaign. But they remain captives of national leaders driven by the past--by the political passions and racial ideology that triggered the conflict in the first place.
More challenging speculation about the brief war's ultimate impact centers on a team of European officials who worked closely together during the conflict and who take on important new Europe-wide responsibilities in its wake. History has brought them together to work on "finishing" Europe and given them important tools to use over the next three to four years.
This year's successful launch of the euro, the single currency now recognized as a unit of account in 11 of the European Union's 15 member countries, is one of those tools. After nine months, the euro and the European Central Bank created to maintain its value have become integral parts of the international landscape.
"It is a long time since Europeans could point to something and say, 'we created that,' " says French Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn. "Completion of that vision creates new public confidence for the tasks before us."
But more is involved here than new confidence. The method in which the euro has become a reality is also important for the future: Monetary policy was gradually and quietly removed from the grip of European political parties and the nationalist fervor that once sustained them. Thinkers and technicians helped the politicians find unobtrusive ways to jettison outmoded ideologies in the name of building a new Europe.
Strauss-Kahn, the political heavyweight in Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's Socialist-led leftist cabinet, illustrated this indirectly with comments that once would have gotten him burned at the political stake. Europe's current economic revival is based on an American-style "mix of tight fiscal policy and easy monetary policy. We have been following the Clinton-Greenspan approach and it has worked," he told me.
Something similar may be happening in the more abstract and therefore more difficult realm of European foreign and security policy post-Kosovo. Key players such as Hubert Vedrine and Joschka Fischer, the foreign ministers of France and Germany respectively, do not wear blinders based on party positions or tradition. Fischer's courage in facing down critics in his Green Party over Kosovo made him the country's most popular politician.
Spain's Javier Solana moves this month from being NATO secretary general to becoming the European Union's senior representative on foreign and security policy. Trusted by Washington, Solana worked closely and productively during Kosovo with Vedrine, Fischer and British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook. And succeeding Solana at NATO is George Robertson, who shone during the war as Britain's defense minister.
This is a strong Team Europe, which has gained experience in thinking together outside the box of conventional politics and policy. Two other key figures--European Commission President Romano Prodi of Italy and Briton Chris Patten, the commission's foreign policy representative, fit that description, though they played no official role in Kosovo.
European integration has proceeded in fits and starts, beginning with the vision Jean Monnet and others had to tie France and Germany together economically and prevent them from going to war again. It has been pushed forward by political giants such as de Gaulle and Adenauer, Mitterrand and Kohl, after intensive periods of behind-the-scenes work.
This is a period of similar preparation. Vedrine has asked his ministry to begin thinking about the "final" shape of Europe--how many new members the Union should take in and how thorough integration should be--and the methods needed to achieve the desired outcomes.
"This is a very complex situation," Vedrine told his aides recently. "So we have to have no more than two or three very clear ideas for dealing with it." That sounds serious to me.