Eastern Europe and NATO sprint to the top of America's foreign policy agenda this week after a long hiatus. President Bush will take decisions on isolating the rogue president of Ukraine, making Romania and Bulgaria part of the next wave of NATO expansion, and putting the final touches on a new alliance quick-strike force for use in future Afghanistans.
Iraq, China and Russia have absorbed the Bush administration's energy and attention in recent months. In the shadow of the Iraq crisis, officials in Washington and Europe have nonetheless pushed to final decision points a set of proposals that will reshape the alliance and Europe itself.
At a time of outward cultural and political dissonance across the Atlantic over Iraq, the Kyoto treaty and other issues, the Old Continent faces its most far-reaching wave of change in institutions and security priorities since the end of the Cold War. No U.S. administration -- even one tempted to listen to the Pied Piper of unilateralism -- can afford to be absent from Europe as patterns that may endure for decades take shape.
And appearances deceive. The U.S.-French scuffling over Iraq at the United Nations obscures the failure of Europeans to reach a common policy on Iraq among themselves. As a result, Paris and other European capitals have been devoting more energy and attention to bilateral relations with Washington than they have in years -- for better and for worse.
With Germany, the results of a more Ameri-centric focus have been mostly for the worse. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder harshly slammed Bush's approach to Iraq during the German election campaign. But Berlin is now putting forward olive branches in the all-important security area.
After initial resistance from U.S. officials who were not ready to overlook the campaign demagoguery of others, Washington has agreed to a German-Dutch command taking charge of the small international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan at the end of the year. This step will save American taxpayers millions of dollars in U.S. subsidies that had enabled Turkey to hold the command temporarily.
NATO Secretary General George Robertson helped smooth the way for that understanding on Afghanistan and put forward a promising new unity idea to Bush in a White House meeting last week, according to U.S. officials: Germany is considering taking the lead in providing Europe's NATO members with new heavy airlift capability. Initially at least this would involve leasing U.S.-manufactured C-17s (and helping Boeing's balance sheet).
Robertson was in town to brief Bush on final preparations for the NATO summit in Prague late next month. The president is moving toward joining the consensus already formed in Europe to admit seven new members -- including Romania and Bulgaria, U.S. officials say. A month later the European Union discusses steps to take in 10 new members by 2004.
The darkest cloud hanging over this mood of change and expansion comes from Ukraine, whose "controversial" (a journalistic code word for leaders who are totally reprehensible) president, Leonid Kuchma, is about to be disinvited from a high-profile ceremony that was to be held on the edge of the Prague NATO summit.
U.S. and British experts have just returned from Ukraine, where they investigated allegations that sophisticated radar tracking devices were sold to Iraq two years ago in violation of international embargoes. The experts are set to report that the Ukrainians were unable to substantiate their denials of the allegations or account for a number of the tracking devices, U.S. and European sources tell me.
U.S. aid has been suspended while the investigation is being carried out. The experts' report should trigger the cancellation of November's scheduled Ukraine-NATO meeting during the Prague summit and the warm welcome that Kuchma was to receive there. And Bush should call for a unified effort by NATO's 19 member nations to single out Kuchma -- evidently personally responsible for the illegal sale -- for diplomatic isolation, while still emphasizing support for the Ukrainian people.
The Prague summit will commit NATO to new core missions that include stabilizing the still volatile politics of Eastern Europe, largely by the force of example and interaction, and the taking on of new security challenges outside alliance territory. Approval is expected for a NATO rapid-response force of 20,000 soldiers -- which will include France -- to deal with crises and terrorism on Europe's periphery.
"This is what we should have had in Afghanistan, when we were deluged with offers of help from our NATO partners and did not know how to respond to them," says one involved U.S. official. Speaking privately to a friend in Washington last week, Robertson made the same point more succinctly: "If people offer to help you, you may want to find ways to let them."