NATO's future

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Whenever Washington wants something which the NATO allies in Europe are reluctant to deliver there are bound to be questions about the future of the alliance.

There are questions now, on both sides of the Atlantic.

The European allies do not like being pushed in a direction which they conceive to be contrary to their interests.

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Some in Washington wonder what the alliance is good for if the allies won't accept the American lead.

We are in the middle of exactly such a situation today.

Secretary of State Alexander Haig has managed to paper over the differences for the moment. He went to Brussels and extracted from reluctant allies a recognition of a Soviet role in recent events in Poland. The details are worth notice.

The Soviet Union gets mentioned for the first time in the fifth paragraph of the communique issued at the end of the special meeting of the NATO foreign ministers which had been convened in Brussels at American request.

The first four paragraphs dealt with the specific actions by the military regime in Poland beginning with the imposition of martial law on Dec. 13. The allies had no difficulty over that matter. They condemned martial law, the arrests and detentions and the denial of individual freedoms. These deeds, they agreed, clearly violate the Helsinki Final Act and ''endangers public confidence in cooperation between East and West and seriously affects international relations.''

So far, so good. No interalliance problems on those points. But what about the Soviet Union's role in the affair? Here we come to paragraph five which begins as follows:

''The allies deplored the sustained campaign mounted by the Soviet Union against efforts by the Polish people for national renewal and reform, and its active support for the subsequent suppression of these efforts in Poland.''

They deplore. They agree that the ''sustained campaign'' against Polish ''national renewal and reform'' violated the Helsinki Final Act. They call on the Soviet Union ''to respect Poland's fundamental right to solve its own problems free from foreign interference...''

But what do the allies do to back up their call on the the Soviets to ''respect Poland's fundamental right?''

The communique gets down to that four paragraphs later, but only after registering the allies' committment to ''the pursuit of arms control.'' They want that pursuit to go forward regardless of what the Soviets have done toward Poland.

Then when they finally come to specific actions they might take if Moscow fails to heed their demands, the communique says that ''each ally will, in accordance with its own situation and legislation identify appropriate national possibilities for action.''

The only specific action actually agreed to be taken at once are to suspend commercial credits to Poland except for food and to suspend negotiations about Poland's official debt. There is not a single actual sanction to be taken at once against the Soviet Union.

So what actually came out of the Brussels meeting was a negotiated settlement between the West European allies and the US under which Washington agrees to continue ''the pursuit of arms control'' in return for which the European allies agree to join in recognizing a Soviet role in the suppression of Solidarity in Poland.

But the European allies refused to agree to take any sanctions against the Soviet Union itself. If Washington wants to apply sanctions to the Soviets, that is Washington's business. The European allies are not going along on that one.

So, what does it all mean about the future of NATO?

It means that NATO has already gone through an important change. It is not longer what it was in the beginning when the US did all the thinking and leading and the allies trooped along behind. Instead it is a place where the Europeans, having first worked out a European policy toward a given problem or issue, proceed to negotiate with the Americans.

Clearly NATO is going to have to be recognized and redefined. Washington and the West European allies have more mutual common interests than differences. They still need each other. But where interests do not overlap there has to be negotiation and accommodation. And, increasingly, there is an identifiable European point of view or policy which differs from Washington's point of view or policy.

The alliance has not broken up, but needs redefinition. The process is likely to be painful, particularly in Washington where the habit is to lead individual allies. Instead Washington will be dealing increasingly with Western Europe as a collective entity.

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