Europe wants an army. Tony Blair wants a European rapid deployment force that can work through NATO in concert with the United States to build "one polar power" that spans the Atlantic. Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schroeder and the leaders of Belgium, Greece and Luxembourg -- the continent's leading critics of the war with Iraq -- want a rapid deployment force to be the military arm of a distinct European Union (EU) foreign and security policy. They want to get that force up and running by next year, and to establish a headquarters for the command in Belgium.
But Belgium, as the Bush administration has noted with some asperity, is already home to the headquarters of NATO. To both the State and Defense departments, the idea of plunking an alternative to NATO just down the block from our own alliance must seem more devilish French mischief.
Europe's desire for a continental strike force, however, antedates its current rift with the United States. It derives in part from Europe's shame at its incapacity to prevent the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia during the '90s. For leaders such as German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, Europe's failure to arrest the massacres and expulsions unfolding in its own backyard underscored the need for a more effective armed force. The European reluctance to resort to force is historically understandable, but, as Fischer above all argued, it cannot be an excuse for inaction in the face of genocide.
The idea of a European army, moreover, was bound to grow more compelling as European unification became more real. With environmental, trade and social policy for the continent increasingly set and enforced by the EU, it would be passing strange if Europe failed to move toward a common defense policy -- and force -- as well.
That said, France and other antiwar nations have realized that absent an effective armed force, their only option in the face of Bush's insistence on going to war -- just saying Non! -- was singularly ineffective.
The American monopoly on military might, coupled with the administration's support for preemptive war, means that the United States is free to remake the world as the Pentagon neoconservatives would have it. If Europe wants its say on the nascent new world order, it needs to be able to project its values more affirmatively.
There is, of course, something stunningly perverse in Europe's developing an armed force to project values that are borderline pacifistic.
But an armed force controlled by democratic states, employed only in instances of genuine threats, and suited not just for combat but also for intrusive inspections of a dangerous rogue state or the tedious task of nation-building, would be a welcome addition to the forces for good in the world. Particularly as these are not purposes to which the Bush administration cares to put our own forces.
In its statement of U.S. strategic policy last September, the administration vowed that no rival military force would be allowed even to approximate American might. But the neoconservative authors of that document failed to consider the rise of a distinct, if allied, democratic superpower (though no one did more to estrange Europe than they). In any event, even if Europe were to triple or quadruple its arms budget -- which no one on the continent is remotely considering -- Europe's strike force would still pale alongside ours. What such an expansion could do, however, is help create a democratic alternative to the monopoly of American power.
And what's wrong with that? An American monopoly on power is a great idea -- so long as there's also an American monopoly on virtue and on smarts.
That the dominant forces in this administration act as though that's the case only strengthens the need for a largely friendly counterforce (and one that's stronger than the State Department).
After all, when military force isn't part of the equation, the world is just as likely to emulate the European model as our own. The former Soviet bloc nations of Donald Rumsfeld's New Europe were free to remake themselves as they saw fit after the fall of the Berlin Wall. And in creating their electoral and health care systems, they universally eschewed the money-driven U.S. versions for the more socialistic alternatives of bad Old (Western) Europe.
Indeed, in their commitment both to multilateralism and a mixed economy, the Europeans often seem a good deal closer than the current administration does to the America that emerged from World War II. Let them have their army. Without the Old Europe, where could we still see the Old America?
Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of the Prospect.
This column originally appeared in Wednesday's Washington Post.