Remolding NATO

Partners are no longer marching to the American drummer

Foreign ministers of the 16 North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries are planning an anniversary summit in Washington next April to redefine the mission of the alliance. And what a whale of a difference a half century makes!

I can remember what it felt like in 1949 when the NATO treaty was signed in the State Department auditorium under the beaming gaze of Secretary Dean Acheson. Mao Zedong's forces were completing the conquest of China. Soviet tanks had rolled into Czechoslovakia. Blockaded Berlin was being kept alive by an American airlift. The Soviets had tested an atomic bomb. And Western Europe, especially West Germany, huddled under the American nuclear umbrella, happy to accept US leadership.

Now a newly confident Germany has proposed that the alliance pledge no first-use of nuclear weapons and has joined with France and Britain in plans for an autonomous European military force. And Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, outlining a new "strategic concept" for NATO at a foreign ministers' conference in Brussels, has found herself at the start of a rancorous debate with partners no longer marching to the American drummer.

The new concept would take the alliance "out of area," in NATO lingo, to mobilize against the threat of missiles, gas, or chemical attack from any rogue state or nonstate terrorist organization. A new NATO Center for Weapons of Mass Destruction would be created as a clearinghouse for intelligence on potential threats. A central organization would distribute detection equipment, protective clothing, and vaccines.

The initial European reaction has been cool, to put it mildly. French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine said that an America with hegemonic aspirations as the only superpower is aiming at "some new kind of global NATO." It would be a NATO no longer willing to subject itself to a veto by China or Russia by seeking the endorsement of the United Nations Security Council.

The Clinton administration has done remarkably little to prepare the Europeans, or the American public for that matter, for its far-reaching proposals. They would require a redrafting of the NATO treaty, whose collective defense provision had in mind a massed Soviet tank attack, not a germ-laden missile or poisoned water supply from a mysterious source.

Remolding NATO, a difficult task in itself, becomes more difficult with Europeans less willing to accept American leadership.

Under a portrait of Dean Acheson in the State Department, our allies may be less acquiescent next April than they were in the perilous days of 1949.

* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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