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Algora Publishing - If forced to choose, Europe will ditch NATO
                                               For a Kinder, Gentler Society
If forced to choose, Europe will ditch NATO
The International Criminal Court By William Pfaff (International Herald Tribune)

PARIS: The Central European and Balkan countries that are candidates for both NATO and European Union membership have a problem they don't need and can't afford. They are being told that they have to choose between NATO and the EU, according to how they respond to the U.S demand to exempt Americans from the jurisdiction of the new International Criminal Court.

The implied threat comes from both Brussels and Washington. The apparent dilemma is being taken with great seriousness in these countries, which are at a loss to know what to do.

The issue itself is ridiculously irrelevant. Americans are not going to commit war crimes in NATO countries, and even if they did, American courts would try them. The ICC would never come into it.

For the Bush administration, however, the ICC is an obsession. For the European Union, main backers of the court, universal jurisdiction is a point of principle that it seems determined to defend.

The court was initially supported by the Clinton administration, but while it signed the treaty establishing the court, it never sent the treaty to the Senate for ratification. President Bill Clinton knew that the treaty was political dynamite and that the Republicans would in any case block ratification.

The Bush administration now has "unsigned" the treaty and is set on getting other governments either to repudiate it or to make bilateral agreements with the United States never to extradite Americans to the court. Washington is demanding such agreements from all 13 EU candidate countries that also are candidates for NATO membership.

Congress has passed legislation withholding military aid from any country that does not exempt Americans from the court's jurisdiction. The implied message being sent is that the United States will block NATO membership for any country that refuses to do so.

The European Union is taking an equally hard line. The president of the commission, Romano Prodi, has warned the candidates for European Union membership that the EU insists on a single policy on this matter. He deplored the decision Romania already has taken to sign with the United States.

A Croatian government official said last week: "One can hardly expect us to extradite our own people, and at the same time refuse to extradite citizens of the United States." The EU will formally take up the matter at the end of August or in early September.

What really is threatened is a raw power conflict. Washington wants to compel the NATO candidates to accept its demands, and it thinks it can force the EU to back down. The EU seems determined not to yield.

This test of strength makes no sense at all. Pushed to the limit, it could undermine or even destroy NATO, and it will certainly do serious damage to American global interests.

The ultimate calculation, which Washington seems not to grasp, is that the United States needs NATO. Existing EU members do not need NATO. If they had to, they could do without it.

The candidate states need the EU more than they need NATO. NATO offers a security link to the United States, but that cannot make up for the long-term economic and political loss the candidates would suffer by being excluded from the European Union.

The United States cannot afford to have NATO alienate its original West European allies. This seems poorly understood in Europe, and not understood at all by the neoconservative ideologues driving policy in Washington.

NATO furnishes an indispensable logistical and strategic foundation for America's position throughout Eurasia, as well as in the Near and Middle East. NATO membership gives Washington a legitimate say in European deliberations. Without NATO, the United States would be reduced to a Western Hemisphere and Pacific power.

International Herald Tribune Los Angeles Times Syndicate International