EUROPE TAKES CHARGE

Hundreds of thousands of American tourists flock to Ireland every year seeking ruined castles, green fields and friendly folk. On his presidential visit to the Emerald Isle, Ronald Reagan raised a beer in a local pub. Bill Clinton, despite the controversy surrounding his policies on Northern Ireland, was welcomed by cheering crowds.

Not so President George W. Bush. One might have expected him to launch a week of transatlantic diplomacy, starting with the annual EU-U.S. summit on the Emerald Isle, with a popular touch. Yet Bush is now so conspicuously unpopular abroad that even in fervently pro-American Ireland, his presence creates chaos. Thousands of protesters took to the streets. Holed up in remote and romantic Dromoland Castle Hotel outside Shannon, the visiting president was defended by the largest security operation in Irish history. (Quite a distinction in a country that has faced decades of domestic terrorism.) Half the 500 members of the presidential entourage were U.S. Secret Service agents, armed with high-powered weapons, armor-piercing munitions and bombproof cars. All this security for only a couple of hours of actual meetings with EU leaders.

U.S. officials have instead pinned their hopes on the second stop in Bush's European tour, the NATO summit in Istanbul on June 28 and 29. Bush is staying longer in Turkey, doing more talking, and hopes to get more done. The primary focus is to persuade America's European allies to contribute more military forces to U.S. efforts in Iraq. For several months, senior administration officials' briefings on NATO have spoken of little else.

Yet this effort is futile. Only the British and Poles maintain a significant number of troops in Iraq; a dozen other NATO allies have sent symbolic contingents. Germany, France and other recalcitrant governments have signaled their unwillingness to do more than contribute to the training of Iraqi forces in third countries. None of this will change this week. The Bush administration will point to a joint communique and claim multilateral support. Americans will pen essays on the crisis of NATO and wonder why Europe lacks stronger military forces. Europeans will criticize Bush's newfound multilateralism as too little, too late--suspiciously resembling a series of photo ops designed to counter criticism from Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry that the Bush administration's unilateralist policies have alienated U.S. allies. Iraq is too controversial to generate much allied support.

In part, this failure reflects the political predicament of the Bush administration, which is desperate to shore up its controversial Iraq policy, even at the expense of pursuing more promising areas for NATO cooperation, such as Afghanistan. Yet the deeper problem is NATO itself. In a world where homeland security, nation-building and international legitimacy are increasingly important, particularly in European eyes, NATO seems an anachronistic military defense organization constructed to oppose Soviet forces, and retains something of the static cast of cold-war deterrence.

This feeling is accentuated by the fact that the political initiative has shifted to the other Brussels-based organization: the European Union. In economic matters, it is already universally recognized that the EU is a trade-policy superpower. When the top U.S. trade official, Robert Zoellick, meets his European Commission counterpart, Pascal Lamy, they bargain as equals. And when they reach an agreement, the rest of the world listens.

But it is less well recognized, particularly in the United States, that the EU has now moved far beyond economics--in particular, into foreign and defense policy. More than 80 percent of European positions in the United Nations are now coordinated, and a coherent defense identity is slowly emerging.

To be sure, NATO is and will remain the logistical basis of most Western military cooperation. More coherent multinational units are being created within NATO. It has successfully met the challenge issued by its former leader, Lord George Robertson, to "go out of area or out of business," and lent its name and a significant number of troops to operations in Kosovo and Afghanistan. This is no small achievement--and, for that, NATO remains indispensable.

Yet NATO is no longer--if indeed it ever was--a source of political initiative and legitimacy. When I toured NATO headquarters a few weeks ago, the mood was depressed, even despondent. Officials were hard-pressed to name any specific NATO contribution to the war on terrorism beyond troops in Afghanistan, some interdiction ships in the Mediterranean and a chemical decontamination unit. More important, NATO no longer commands the sort of instinctive legitimacy among European political elites that it once enjoyed.

The emergence of the EU means that the real dynamism in transatlantic relations no longer lies in the NATO summit, but in the EU-U.S. summit. Here there is much more of which to boast. Consider the following achievements in European-U.S. relations:

U.S. -EU initiatives have moved forward in many other areas, such as intelligence sharing, coordination of HIV/AIDS programs and efforts to promote political reform in the Middle East. Europeans and Americans have also come close to agreement on opening EU and U.S. air-transport markets to each others' airlines, though a pact remains stalled due to protectionist pressures on both sides of the Atlantic.

The EU's high representative, Javier Solana, already plays an increasingly important role in coordinating national policies. If the EU Constitution is ratified--and probably even if it is not--his diplomatic position will be consolidated into something already being referred to in Brussels as an EU "foreign minister." And, perhaps even more important, the EU--for all the Euroskeptic hoopla in the recent Europarliamentary elections--enjoys greater legitimacy among Europeans than NATO. All this will further consolidate the EU's leading role in transatlantic relations.

Little of this will actually be discussed in detail by national leaders this week and even less will appear in press reports. There is nothing sexy about container shipping, passenger lists or peacekeeping. Nearly all the reporting will focus on NATO, and most of that on the failure, once again, to reach agreement on Iraq. Yet the core of transatlantic cooperation does not lie in presidential polemics and photo ops, but in the permanent network of transatlantic meetings between various federal agencies and their EU counterparts. In the long term, the quiet diplomacy underlying the EU-U.S. relationship may contribute far more to transatlantic welfare and security than NATO's bickering and bombast.