NATO churns through rough seas

Threaded through the current debate over a nuclear freeze and adoption of a no-first-use doctrine run more fundamental questions about the state of the NATO alliance.

Is it becoming less cohesive and therefore less able to counter its Warsaw Pact adversaries? Or are the alarms being raised in some quarters overstated?

There have been warnings about a crisis in NATO since the alliance was formed 33 years ago. But according to expert observers and foreign policy participants here, the allies today face particularly challenging times.

A report released over the weekend by the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee concludes that ''there is greater strength and commonality of purpose in NATO today than most political commentators believe.'' But the study by the committee's staff also warns that the alliance now faces a unique situation, including ''multiple strains which tend to reinforce one another'' and could push NATO ''into crisis if issues are not managed carefully.''

Cited here are different attitudes about the Soviet Union, the deployment of theater nuclear forces in Western Europe, the shift in US military strategy away from a NATO-based emphasis, economic difficulties on both sides of the Atlantic, and the degree to which conventional forces should be built up.

''Our allies are truly disturbed because there is a crisis of confidence within the alliance -- a loss of confidence in a protector that had previously seemed all-powerful to make up for their conventional weaknesses,'' former Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger said recently. ''That is the fundamental issue that has fueled the divisions and tensions within NATO.''

Robert S. McNamara, another former defense secretary, recently told reporters over breakfast, ''Force deployment associated with first use [of nuclear weapons ], including the neutron bomb, is causing more and more political divisiveness in Western Europe and between Western Europe and the United States.''

The European allies were quick to join Britian with economic sanctions against Argentina for its invasion of the Falkland Islands. But with two-thirds of the royal fleet -- the best equipped in Europe -- now headed for the South Atlantic, Pentagon officials are concerned about the strength of NATO naval forces in their home territory. Navy Secretary John Lehman stressed this in a recent Monitor interview.

There is general agreement that, as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee report states, ''the alliance has been largely outpaced by the continuing momentum of the Soviet military buildup.''

On the other hand, former US arms control chief Paul Warnke points out, ''The NATO countries have more people, more money, and more modern technology than the Warsaw Pact. We are allies because we are friends who share common interests. No such congeniality pervades the Warsaw Pact.''

Congeniality, population, and money aside, however, there remain several strains outlined in the new Senate report:

* West Germany and Italy are likely to remain faithful to NATO's 1979 decision to deploy intermediate range nuclear weapons in Europe beginning next year, as arms control negotiations proceed. Yet there are ''strong doubts as to whether the Netherlands and, to a lesser degree, Belgium will be able to follow through. . . .''

* Western European countries have made progress in increasing their conventional force, but not to the 3 percent annual real growth goal set by NATO in 1978. As a result, there is some agitation in the US Congress to pass a new Mansfield Amendment to reduce US forces in Europe. Such a move, warns the Senate report, ''would clearly provoke an angry, confused, and divisive European reaction that would severely harm NATO cohesion.''

* ''Many Europeans . . . see their economic dilemma as profoundly different from that facing the United States. They fear that a slow-growth, low-inflation program which might prove quite tolerable in the United States would worsen NATO Europe's unemployment problem.'' The report notes that ''Europeans are especially dismayed that the United States is aggressively raising trade disputes'' related to steel and agricultural products.

* While ''grass-roots anxiety in Europe about nuclear weapons . . . should not be misinterpreted as mass support for neutalism, anti-Americanism, or unilateral disarmament,'' the report states, the US government has not been ''adequately sensitive to the impact on European public opinion of its public discussions of limited nuclear war and its confrontational rhetoric aimed at the Soviet Union.''

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