A New Role For Nato

As the cold war fades, Western leaders seek to reassure the Soviets and preserve the alliance

The meeting in London was clearly a triumph for the United States. It was George Bush who had called for the NATO summit in the first place. The 16 heads of state followed an American agenda. In both substance and tone, the final communique marked a revolution in the concept of Western security--and most of the major ideas were American as well. While reveling in his position as the still undisputed leader of the Western Alliance, Bush seemed concerned about the reaction in the East. "Here's an alliance that you should view, Mr. Gorbachev, as defensive and not threatening," the president said. "And please convince your military and others in the Soviet Union of tbis fact."

Gorbachev needed little convincing. Speaking to reporters during a break in the tumultuous Communist Party Congress (page 33), the Soviet leader seemed eager to accept NATO's invitation to address the organization later this year. Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennady Gerasimov described the NATO declaration as an effective answer to conservatives who have complained that Mikhail Gorbachev's foreign policy has been dominated by one-sided concessions to the West. "The results of the NATO session show that our good example brings answering steps from NATO," he said, arguing that the new Western position would strengthen Gorbachev at home as well as abroad. That was surely the aim of NATO leaders who regard Gorbachev's political survival as essential to bringing the cold war in Europe to an unambiguous end. "Gorbachev himself made it quite clear that he needed something he could show his people," said a senior U.S. official, "and that is what we sought to provide."

The NATO declaration was calculated to reassure. "We have no aggressive intentions," it insisted, "and we commit ourselves to the peaceful resolution of all disputes. We will never in any circumstances be the first to use force." Breaking with nearly a quarter century of deterrent strategy, the NATO leaders forswore their doctrine of "flexible response," the option of using nuclear weapons if Western conventional forces are unable to repel an invasion by Soviet troops. Henceforth, the communique insisted, nuclear arms will be "truly weapons of the last resort." More specifically, the communique called for negotiations to eliminate short-range nuclear weapons from Europe and pledged that the United States would withdraw all nuclear artillery shells if the Soviets agreed to do the same. NATO also pledged to rely on smaller, more mobile conventional forces that can be reinforced quickly in an emergency. And addressing one of the Soviets' greatest fears, Germany promised to set a ceiling on its troop levels as a prelude to negotiated troop cuts throughout Europe.

On the political front, the NATO communique invited the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact nations to establish a permanent diplomatic liaison with the Western Alliance and proposed a nonaggression pact with Moscow and its former satellites. Implicit was the notion that East-West hostility is coming to an end; the task now is to wind down the military confrontation while expanding NATO's role as a political "agent of change." "Before this summit, I would have said that it was not going to be easy to find a raison d'etre for NATO in the future," said Francois Heisbourg, director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "But now I'd say that the basic elements are in place that may allow NATO to survive as a meaningful alliance."

Strongest influence: That was clearly Washington's intention, for it is through NATO that the United States exerts its strongest influence on Europe. What was striking about the London summit was the degree to which the European allies were willing to allow Washington to play a dominant role. President Francois Mitterrand of France and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher swallowed doubts about abandoning flexible response; Chancellor Helmut Kohl of West Germany did not insist that NATO pledge "no first use" of nuclear weapons. "There are things the Germans or French will accept if the Americans present them, but not if the British do, or vice versa," said a senior NATO official. "When it comes to security issues, America's participation gives Europe a confidence level that it still doesn't have on its own."

Privately, U.S. officials speak of a future in which NATO expands to accept new members--including former allies of the Warsaw Pact--and guarantees American access to an economically integrated European Community. At the other extreme, American, British and French experts warn of a rise of neutralism in Germany which would force Washington to with draw both its troops and its nuclear guarantee. Under those circumstances, says Helmut Sonnenfeldt of the Brookings Institution, "it's perfectly natural that ... Germany might question whether ... to develop its own nuclear protection, particularly if the Soviet Union remains an unstable place." Such a move would raise the fears of France and Britain--and create pressure on Washington to take a side. "That would be very dangerous for the United States and Europe," a senior U.S. official said last week. "The United States must avoid becoming . . . mired in balanceof-power struggles on the Continent."

A more likely possibility is that the Europeans themselves will develop a more independent security structure--either within NATO or as part of an expanded European Community. One frequently discussed scenario involves "Europeanizing" the British and French nuclear forces and giving Germany a role in a joint nuclear command. But that seems improbable in view of the problems of nationalism and money: France and Britain will fight to retain their positions as independent nuclear powers--and European taxpayers are reluctant to spend for greater defense. Some analysts speak vaguely of a greater role for the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), a group that comprises every European nation except Albania. According to this scenario, CSCE would take over such "all-European" security matters as arms talks and verification. It is doubtful, though, that CSCE can become a central security structure, particularly because any member nation can veto a decision by the majority. Thus Europe will face an uncertain transition unless the United States continues to play a role.

But what role can America realistically play? With the Soviet threat diminishing, NATO's function is likely to grow more marginal. And Europe will surely assert more independence as it pushes toward economic integration. Under the best of circumstances, economic cooperation will lead to the kind of harmony that makes security concerns irrelevant. But what if Europe reverts to aggressive nationalism or turmoil sweeps the former Warsaw Pact? Recognizing those possibilities, European leaders continue to welcome the American role. But as that role gradually diminishes, Europe will have to learn to contain its worst instincts--and abandon the patronage of the United States.

PHOTO (COLOR): A revolution in the concept of security: President Bush and U.S. Secretary of State James Baker (right) are greeted in London by British

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