Sharing the burden of European defense

By , Sen. William V. Roth Jr. (R) of Delaware is the newly elected vice-chairman of the military committee of the NATO Interparliamentary Assembly.

THAT comment by Britain's most prestigious political journal neatly summarizes one of the thorniest issues now facing the United States and our NATO allies: How can we more equitably share the burden of defending Europe from possible Soviet attack?

Not just future historians but many present-day US senators and congressmen are already scratching their heads over facts like these:

* The US government spends 400 percent more per capita for the defense of the free world than any of the other NATO nations.

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* Each US citizen contributes 10.7 percent of his or her income to our common defense, while the average European pays only 2.8 percent.

As a member of the US delegations to the North Atlantic Assembly meetings last spring and this fall, I have spent many hours trying to convince European leaders of the urgent need for a larger European contribution to NATO defense costs. Unfortunately, their reaction has been disappointing. During the spring meeting, I was shocked to hear many of my European colleagues say they had no intention of abiding by their seven-year-old commitment to increase real defense spending. During the fall session, after the Senate had strongly signaled the Europeans that their attitude was unacceptable, the response was more positive. Still, I came away with little reassurance that the situation is likely to improve soon.

For the sake of world peace, however, it must improve, and quickly. The defense of Europe now depends almost entirely on nuclear weapons. NATO's conventional defenses are so weak that if the Warsaw Pact were to launch an attack on Europe, the NATO commander would have to request authorization to use nuclear weapons within a matter of days.

This is intolerable, both militarily and politically. The United States and its allies are tied to a nuclear tripwire in Europe. This dangerous nuclear dependency is responsible in large part for the strong neutralist, anti-defense sentiment in Europe. It is also at least partly responsible for the growing isolationist movement in the US.

NATO can and must escape from this nuclear trap by beefing up its conventional forces - but it must be an effort shared by all the NATO countries. Without additional support from our allies, I doubt that Congress will be willing to continue allocating more than half of the US defense budget for troops, weapons, and support equipment, either stationed in Europe or on standby in the US, ready for rapid deployment to Europe.

Last June, in an effort to remedy this disparity in US and European contributions to Western defense, Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia and I introduced the Nunn-Roth amendment to the defense authorization bill. Our amendment would have required the United States to withdraw 30,000 soldiers a year from Europe in 1987, 1988, and 1989 - unless the allies began honoring their commitment to increase their defense spending.

Our amendment was supported by 41 senators, and sympathy for our position was much higher. Only an all-out effort by the administration prevented the amendment's passage. Unless the Europeans begin to contribute more to our common defense, the amendment almost certainly will be reintroduced, and next time the administration may not be able to persuade a majority of the Senate to vote against it.

For the last 35 years, NATO has brought peace and security to Western Europe. It has symbolized the special relationship between the United States and our European allies. But an alliance that relies so heavily on a nuclear balance of terror is inherently unstable. Unless we act promptly to bring NATO's defenses more in line with the realities of the 1980s, US support for the alliance could rapidly erode. The message is clear enough; let's hope our friends in Europe are really listening.

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