Be careful what you wish for, goes the old adage. You just might get it. So it is with America’s desire that the Europeans do more for their own defense.

The E.U. has proposed the development of a European rapid reaction force of 60,000 men. Although it will be some time before such a unit takes to the field—2003, under current plans—the E.U. conducted war games in February without the United States.

There’s no doubt that Europe’s military capabilities should be enhanced. Despite possessing a smaller GDP and population than the E.U., America spends 40 percent more on its military.

By almost every measure—total outlays, percentage of GDP, spending per capita—Europe lags far behind the United States. Because of Europe’s postwar weakness, U.S. dominance was inevitable when NATO was created in 1949. But some American officials warned against excessive European dependence on the United States. “Permanent troop establishments abroad,” observed Dwight Eisenhower in 1961, “discourage the development of the necessary military strength Western European countries should provide for themselves.”

Throughout the 1980’s, the Europeans routinely failed to honor their promises to increase defense spending. And the gap between U.S. and European military contributions increased after the fall of the Berlin Wall, since Europe cut defense spending faster than America.

A recent audit by the Western European Union (WEU), Europe’s formal defense organization, concluded that Europe’s militaries are largely ill equipped, outmoded, and unable to fulfill post-Cold War missions. Europe has just one-tenth of America’s practical military capabilities.

This was evident in the Kosovo war. The United States provided virtually all precision-guided missiles, intelligence, airlift resources, and 80 percent of aircraft. Three months of bloodless (on the allied side) bombing was possible only because of sophisticated U.S. military technology, developed through massive spending on research and development.

Indeed, NATO is not an alliance. Former National Security Advisor Zbigiriew Brzezinski more accurately termed Western Europe “largely an American protectorate, with its allied states reminiscent of ancient vassals and tributaries.” Despite periodic U.S. complaints about burden-sharing, this arrangement has long satisfied both sides.

After the war against Serbia, however, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott chided an English audience, “Many Americans are saying: Never again should the United Stales have to fly the lion’s share of tire risky missions in a NATO operation and foot by far the biggest bill.” In early February, Defense Secretary William Cohen criticized the Europeans for failing to modernize their military arsenals, relying too heavily on America. GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush has cited “Europe’s need to invest more in defense capabilities.”

The Europeans, too, seem appalled by their pitiful performance. As Javier Solana, who last October shifted from NATO to WEU secretary-general, put it: “To have a good and solid partnership, it has to be more among equals.”

Publicly, the Clinton administration professes to be pleased with Europe’s greater interest in building effective military forces. One U.S. official told the Financial Times that “This is burden-sharing, big time.”

In October, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution advocating that the E.U. undertake an “autonomous” intervention “only after NATO had declined to take on that mission.” At the end of last year. Secretary Cohen made the same point, advocating that NATO have “first option” on any proposed military action.

Washington’s oft-expressed fear is that the European Security and Defense Identity (ESDI) will, at best, distract attention from NATO. At worst, it will lead Europe to end its military reliance on America.

Naturally, the Europeans say there is nothing to fear. French President Jacques Chirac explains that Europe’s initiatives “reinforce NATO, in reality.” British Prime Minister Tony Blair adds, “It is not an attempt in any shape or form to supplant or compete with NATO.”

Although European embarrassment over its relative weakness is real, it is still not clear whether Europe is willing to spend what it will take to end its reliance on America. For instance, Germany has only half the number of soldiers under arms today as it did in 1991. It would cost Berlin an additional two billion dollars a year to fulfill the new E.U. mandate. Yet Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has proposed to cut more than one billion dollars, or four percent, in military spending this year, and almost ten billion dollars more over the next four years. France’s defense budget is also down from last year.

In early December, Secretary Cohen complained that Berlin’s miserly military efforts were sending a bad message to new NATO members. In fact, recent initiates such as Hungary say they can’t afford to fulfill their commitments to modernize their forces and achieve inter-cooperation.

The French, at least, recognize the conflict between ends and means. French Gen. Pierre Gallois (ret.) observes, “You can’t want a European military organization that can get along without the Americans and reduce military budgets.” Similarly, French Defense Minister Alain Richard says, “I think it’s not realistic to say we are spending enough and that all we need to do is create more synergy and achieve more efficient cooperation.”

Europe must decide: How much is pride worth?

It should be worth a lot, given the likelihood that America will eventually grow weary of solving Europe’s problems. The United States demonstrated in East Timor that its willingness to intervene is not infinite. Australia had to take the lead in the U.N. peacekeeping force to defend what were overwhelmingly Australian interests. Canberra is now discussing bolstering its military for fear that it might face similar situations in the future.

For a while, Washington may continue to look more favorably upon intervention in Europe. But that is likely to change, especially if NATO’s Balkan adventures turn sour. Bosnia offers little argument for a repeat experience: Only Western military occupation holds together an artificial state where corruption dramatically outpaces reconciliation. Kosovo could become even worse if NATO is serious about preserving a multiethnic society under formal Serbian authority—a formula for permanent occupation and possibly a new war, this time against the Kosovo Liberation Army.

A serious European force would allow the E.U. to act if the United States refused and enable the Europeans to defend security interests that are not vital to Washington. However, Europe could do much more with its own military. Chancellor Schroeder argues that “The Europe of the future must be able to defend its interests and values effectively worldwide.” With the capability to intervene, explains President Chirac, the E.U. “will have at its disposal all the true means of a foreign policy.” The outlines of an independent European stance were evident when European Commission President Romano Prodi announced in February that “any attack or aggression against an EU member nation would be an attack or aggression against the whole EU.”

This is precisely what bothers Washington. Despite public declarations of good will, American officials have privately lobbied against the European initiative, with a heavy-handedness that ESDI advocates complain has been counterproductive. “We know the Americans,” one anonymous E.U. official told the Los Angeles Times. “They want the Europeans to do more in matters of defense, but on the other hand, they’re worried about something being done behind their backs.”

The devolution of defense responsibilities on Europe is desirable, because Europe no longer needs America. The Soviet threat that gave rise to NATO is dead. Amazingly, Britain and France each now spend more than Russia on defense; Germany’s outlays are roughly equal. Europe has a combined GDP of about nine times that of Russia. Italy alone has a bigger economy than Russia.

If the E.U. does create a rapid reaction force, it is hard to imagine the Europeans remaining subordinate to America. In June 1999, Guenter Verheugen, Germany’s E.U. ambassador and minister of state for foreign affairs, explained that the purpose of the ESDI “is to engage in active crisis management in Europe with its own resources and under its own responsibility.” If Europe acquires the ability to “engage in active crisis management in Europe” and perhaps beyond, what role is there for the United States?

Geoffrey Van Orden, the British Conservative Party’s spokesman on foreign affairs and defense, warns that having the Europeans take first crack at European problems “will inevitably have a negative impact on NATO’s viability” and fears “the weakening of trans-Atlantic bonds.” Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State John Bolton contends that, in a few years, “We might well face the prospect that it is the WEU that is the real alliance, and NATO the appendage, rather than the other wav’ around.” More bluntly, Defense Secretary Cohen warns against allowing the Europeans to “simply fend for themselves.”

But why is that such a bad idea? While it isn’t likely to occur soon, at least not without American encouragement, why shouldn’t Europe take responsibility for its own affairs?

America’s vital interest is to prevent a hegemonic power from dominating the European continent. Such a threat no longer exists: Russia can barely defeat Chechnya; Germany possesses neither the will nor ability to threaten its neighbors (imagine an attack on nuclear-armed France); Milosevic’s Serbia may be nasty, but it is impoverished and pitiful; terrorists may lurk along the North African coast, but America’s military presence in Europe only makes the continent a more attractive target.

Whatever intra-European rivalries might eventually erupt, none are likely to turn violent. The world of the E.U., the euro, and pan-European cooperation is a different world from that which gave rise to two world wars. What is left is the messy, unfinished business of the Cold War, particularly in the Balkans. More distant are a potpourri of tribal conflicts in the Caucasus. Yet none of these are important for the security of Europe, let alone America. Modest improvements in European military capabilities would allow the E.U. states to deal with further instability, should they believe the price of doing so to be worthwhile. Washington could begin by letting the five-nation Eurocorps take over manning, as well as commanding, occupation forces in Kosovo, for example.

Secretary Cohen has argued that “A stronger Europe means a stronger Alliance, and a stronger Alliance is able to deter the threats and maintain peace and stability.” But this applies as much to an alliance rim by Europe as one run by America. Although Britain’s Secretary of State for Defense Geoffrey Hoon contends that “‘more Europe’ does not mean ‘less America,'” it should mean less America.

When the world and the threats in it change, so should alliances like NATO. Everyone seems to agree that the Europeans should do more militarily. Now is the time to ask: What should America’s role be?