BONN — THE event in the Moltke Room of the German Defense Ministry was low-key and received relatively little media attention. But it could mark the start of a new age of transatlantic cooperation.
At the ceremony, defense officials from the United States, Germany, France, and Italy signed a letter of intent to develop and produce jointly a new-age regional antimissile system.
Officials caution that technical and diplomatic obstacles remain. But the letter marks the first time that the US and other NATO members have shown a willingness to work together at all stages of production to build such a high-tech weapon.
Europeans are hoping to use agreements such as this one to bond the US with Europe before the Republican-led Congress can pull the US from its leadership role on the Continent.
At the Feb. 20 signing, attendees stressed that better defenses against medium-range missiles, such as Scuds, are necessary in the post-cold-war era. Joint development would increase the chances that the new weapons would be cheaper, as well as more effective, than those produced by individual nations.
''This is an important capability for an uncertain world in which proliferation is taking place,'' US Deputy Defense Secretary John Deutch told reporters. ''It's a model of the kind of cooperation that's required in the post-cold-war world, where we still face threats, but with reduced [defense] budgets.''
Beyond the cost-benefits and other tactical aspects of the pledge to work together, officials on both sides of the Atlantic emphasized the document's strategic significance.
''We're laying the foundation for something that will link us more closely,'' said Jorg Schonbohm, Germany's state secretary for defense.
The need for a revamped transatlantic security network lately has preoccupied policymakers across Western Europe. Members of the 16-member NATO alliance have struggled to define their approach to the war in the Balkans, the formerly communist Central European nations, and Islamic radicalism in North Africa.
European officials spoke of the need to strengthen the transatlantic relationship at a security conference, held in early February in Munich, Germany. Many policymakers say stability can best be promoted by expanding cooperation between the Continent and the US, and are pushing for a new transatlantic treaty encompassing military, political, and economic fields.
Moves toward a new pact have been spurred by European concern about US politics: specifically, that Republicans -- widely perceived in Europe as isolationist or as diplomatic loose cannons -- will gain total control over US policy and drown out the voices of moderate party members.
Fifty years after the last world war, European analysts insist that Europe still needs the US.
''We can't conceive of a stable Europe without a significant American role,'' says Karl Kaiser, head of the German Society for Foreign Policy, a Bonn think tank.
In particular, experts see danger in a bill sponsored by Republicans in the US House of Representatives, dubbed the National Security Revitalization Act. The bill seeks to limit presidential authority in determining foreign policy. European analysts say passage of the bill will enable isolationist Republicans in Congress to detach the US from the Continent.
''Does [US House Speaker] Newt Gingrich, flushed with victory, realize what a noble tradition he is dismantling?'' political analyst Josef Joffe wrote in the Suddeutsche Zeitung daily newspaper. He was referring to America's postwar role in Europe.
''The lone cowboy appearing out of nowhere and riding into the sunset after the shootout may be a romantic figure, but he is no suitable leader -- particularly not in a postwar era where the most vicious problems call for joint action,'' Mr. Joffe continued.
The US itself could be affected if it withdraws from its leadership role in Europe. ''Without the US as a superpower, Europe would not have enough weight to maintain a balance with its neighbors,'' wrote Herbert Kremp in the Die Welt daily newspaper. ''The US in turn would no longer be a superpower without its European platform. An Atlantic contractual partnership is thus in everybody's best interests.''
President Clinton's administration has proved willing to deepen US involvement in international, multilateral organizations. But with Republicans controlling the US House and Senate, the White House has reacted cautiously to the European desire for a new cooperation framework.
Nevertheless, Mr. Deutch, the deputy US defense secretary, says there is bipartisan support for projects like the missile-defense system. Such commitments could help raise interest in the US about European security issues.
''We hope this is just the first of many such agreements of this type,'' Deutch said. ''They [Republicans] are behind this. They especially like the cost-sharing aspects of this.''