IT seems only fitting that at a time when the D-Day anniversary is so widely discussed, foreign ministers of the nations making up the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are seeking a united purpose at their annual meeting now under way in Washington.
NATO grew out of the resolve of the Western democracies to protect themselves against a new totalitarian challenge in the late 1940s - Soviet expansionism. The Western nations - many of them facing the need to rebuild war-shattered cities and dormant economies - had recently concluded a global conflict that checked an expansionism from another source, Nazi-led Germany.
The very qualities of cooperation, mutual planning, and shared idealism that so characterized the effort by the Western democracies in the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944 - and ultimately ensured the Allied cause itself - are surely just as important today within the Western world. The democracies need to reaffirm their commitment to NATO in particular, and the vision of the Atlantic Alliance in general. That means providing the diplomatic steadiness, financial backing, and remodernization of conventional forces that are essential for the future durability of the organization.
Certainly, the world today is far different from what it was in the mid- and late-1940s. Many of the earlier animosities that drove European politics - such as the long-time commercial rivalry between Britain, France, and Germany - have been tempered, if not totally eliminated. The democracies are now thriving industrial nations. West Germany itself, now fully democratic, is a valued member of today's allied defense establishment - indeed, the pivotal member of the alliance, next to the United States.
Yet, the challenges to NATO and the Atlantic Alliance remain as formidable as they were in the late 1940s. Foremost, of course, is the presence of massive Soviet conventional and strategic forces directly facing Europe. At the same time, the Europeans tend to regard the East-West impasse differently than do those in the United States. Europeans are troubled by the breakdown in US-Soviet arms negotiations, as well as what they see as an undue emphasis on the arms buildup in the US without an equally strong commitment to diplomacy.
But there are also deeper, more internal concerns: chiefly, continuing economic rifts among Common Market nations and between Europe and the US regarding interest rates, American budget deficits, subsidized trade policies. These issues will be discussed at the London economic summit meeting next week. And there are also subtle differences within the alliance - underscored perhaps by the decision to exclude West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl from D-Day ceremonies.
Finally, within the US, an increasing number of politicians and statesmen, now including Henry Kissinger and presidential contender Gary Hart, are calling for a reduction in US troop levels in Western Europe.
The NATO foreign ministers' conference will likely produce a policy declaration that once again, as in the past, stresses allied resolve. Fine. But the words need to be buttressed by money and deeds as well. Despite all its problems, NATO has maintained the peace in Europe now for over three decades - a sharp contrast to the less than two decades of peace in Europe after the end of World War I. The Atlantic Alliance remains a pillar of protection for the Western world that needs clear reaffirmation - and practical support.