Dutch demons of Srebrenica and Europe's defence crisis

To many Americans, especially of the neoconservative persuasion, Dutch behaviour over Afghanistan might confirm all their suspicions about perfidious Europeans, addicted to material comforts, while remaining childishly dependent on US military protection.

The Dutch army has been operating as part of Nato in a remote and unruly part of Afghanistan since 2006. Fighting against the Taliban has been heavy at times. Twenty-one Dutch lives have been lost, out of about 1,800 men and women. The Dutch were supposed to have been relieved by troops from a Nato partner in 2008. No one volunteered. So their mission was extended for another two years. But the Social Democrats in the Dutch coalition government have declared that enough is enough. The Dutch troops will have to come home. Since the Christian Democrats do not agree, the government has fallen.

This is highly inconvenient for the US president Barack Obama, who needs all the help he can get in Afghanistan, even from small allies, if only for political reasons. To many Americans, especially of the neoconservative persuasion, Dutch behaviour might confirm all their suspicions about perfidious Europeans, addicted to material comforts, while remaining childishly dependent on US military protection. When the going gets tough, they argue, the Europeans bow out.

It is true that two horrendous world wars have taken the glamour out of war for most Europeans (Britain is a slightly different story). The Germans, in particular, have no stomach for military aggression, hence their reluctance in Afghanistan to take on anything but simple police tasks. Mindful of Ypres, Warsaw or Stalingrad, not to mention Auschwitz and Treblinka, many regard this as a good thing. Still, there are times when pacifism, even in Germany, is an inadequate response to a serious menace.

Pacifism, however, does not really explain what happened in the Netherlands. The reason the Dutch are wary of carrying on in Afghanistan is not the trauma of the Second World War, but of a small town in Bosnia called Srebrenica. In the mid-1990s, the Dutch volunteered to protect Srebrenica from General Ratko Mladic's Serbian forces. Under United Nations' rules, the Dutch, bearing only sidearms, could fight only in self-defence.

Air support, although promised, never came. Dutch hostages were taken and threatened with execution. The world then watched as the hapless Dutch allowed Mladic's heavily armed Serbs to massacre about 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys. Then, too, pacifism had nothing to do with what happened. Quite the contrary: the main reason the Dutch allowed themselves to be manoeuvred into an impossible situation, without military support from the UN or from Nato allies, was their overeagerness to play an important role, to be taken seriously by the larger powers, to play with the big boys. As a result, they were left holding the bag. Now that the Dutch have done their duty in Afghanistan, the Social Democrats want to make sure that this does not happen again.

Hope of punching above their weight, of influencing the US, was also an important reason why Britain joined in the invasion of Iraq, even though public opinion was set against it. Tony Blair enjoyed the limelight, even if the light was reflected from the US. But this was not just national hubris; it exposed a basic condition of postwar Western Europe. In return for US protection, European allies always tended to fall in line with US security policies. This is what kept Nato going since 1949. It made sense while Nato did what it was designed to do: keep the Soviets out (and, sotto voce, the Germans down).

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Nato suddenly found itself without a clear goal (and the Germans no longer needed to be kept down). It is never easy to mobilise people in democracies for military enterprises. It took a direct Japanese attack on the US navy to bring America into the Second World War. And when the former Yugoslavia was sliding into serious violence in the 1990s, neither the US nor the Europeans wanted to intervene. By the time Nato forces finally took military action against the Serbs, 200,000 Bosnian Muslims had already been murdered.

A military alliance without a clear common enemy, or a clear goal, becomes almost impossible to maintain. Nato is still dominated by the US, and European allies still fall in line, if only just to keep the alliance going - and in the hope of exerting some influence on the only remaining superpower. This means that Europeans participate in US-initiated military adventures, even though national or European interests in doing so are far from clear.

It is hard to see how this can continue for much longer. Democratic countries cannot be asked to risk the blood of their soldiers without the solid backing of their citizens. The only solution to this problem is for Europeans to reduce their dependence on the US and take greater responsibility for their own defence. This can no longer be accomplished on a purely national level. No European country is powerful enough. Yet, in the absence of a European government, there can be no common defence policy, let alone a common army. It is like the euro zone's problems: only political unity could solve them, but that is a step that most Europeans are still unwilling to take.

So we are stuck with an unsatisfactory status quo, in which Nato casts about for a role, Americans are less and less able to afford to be the world's policemen, and Europeans struggle to find a way to define their common interests. The alliance forged in the Cold War will become increasingly fragile. For, whatever Europe's interests are, they are unlikely to be best represented by a seemingly endless war with the Taliban.

Ian Buruma is a professor of democracy and human rights at Bard College in New York © Copyright: Project Syndicate