The demand for change in the American relationship with NATO Europe has grown to a considerable chorus, joined recently by former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger. Driving this demand are Europe's assertion of an increasing independence from United States policy and what Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska calculates as an annual US expenditure of $165 billion to support the NATO commitment. That equals the greater part of the current US fiscal deficit.
Europe's demand for greater independence represents a slow maturation from total dependence on the US in 1945 to a growing belief that there is an increasing divergence between regional European interests and worldwide American interests.
Last year's imbroglio involving deployment of US Pershing II and cruise missiles has done much to fuel European dissatisfaction, even though a majority accepted the deployment.
Seven European nations have called a ''Europeans only'' defense conference for this fall. The possibility of a US troop withdrawal will be high on the agenda.
The 42/3 divisions the US now maintains in Germany and, in particular, the vast dependents establishment that accompanies them are resented by many Europeans. Although for most this is simply the normal resentment against foreign troops of whatever nationality, others are fully aware that there is an influential body of American opinion in government and academic circles that regards those US divisions as a continuing army of occupation, providing the US with leverage to control European behavior.
There is no reason for permitting these tensions to grow. Europe has all the human, economic, and industrial resources it needs to defend itself with no more than a nominal US presence. Objections to a US troop withdrawal are entirely political and economic. That is, the Europeans would prefer not to address the problems of greater political and military integration. And, of course, they would prefer not to have to pay the bill for increased European forces. They will never face up to those problems until the US makes it plain that it can no longer carry the rest of the world, in particular an affluent Western Europe, on its back.
We need to shock the Europeans, but not drive them into a panic. We should leave in place the two US Armored Cavalry regiments that patrol the West German borders with East Germany and Czechoslovakia, and the two-battalion US Berlin Brigade. We should also leave in place any US nuclear weapons and delivery systems a European-led NATO command asks to be retained, and should phase out our tactical air forces more slowly than our land forces to permit orderly European replacement.
That is not an ''abandonment'' of Europe. Our power, our strategic nuclear deterrent, would still be engaged by the presence of substantial American forces. By enabling us to respond more effectively to Soviet initiatives and vulnerabilities elsewhere, the US resources redeployed from Europe would do more to protect Europe than is now the case. Not least of all, the substantial reduction of our annual deficit would go a long way toward stabilizing the international marketplace, to the advantage of the Europeans no less than ourselves.
There is no other area in which so substantial and immediate a saving can be realized in our present excessive worldwide military commitments without undue risk of Soviet exploitation. We must act, and soon, or the present US European deployments will drive us into a fiscal emergency that leaves us no choice but to precipitate actions far worse than anything proposed.
William V. Kennedy served for 14 years as a member of the Army War College faculty. He is co-author of ''The Balance of Military Power: NATO and the Warsaw Pact.''