Bolstering NATO

THE relatively low-key media coverage out of Brussels this week ought not obscure the importance of meetings between NATO defense ministers. In agreeing to bolster NATO's conventional forces - especially ground facilities and ammunition stocks - the defense ministers are ensuring the peace in general and making resort to nuclear weapons less, rather than more, likely.

What needs constant recollection in Western political and governmental circles is that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, for all of its problems, has to be adjudged one of the most successful defensive military alliances in history. The alliance, since its inception in the late 1940s, has stood as a bulwark against direct aggression of the European democracies - and thus, ultimately, the United States. It has been four decades since Western Europe has been caught up in a continentwide military conflict. By contrast, a mere two decades separated the European (and eventually, non-European) combatants in World War I and World War II.

We mention all this because of the recurrence of budgeting and national rivalries that so often tend to mark NATO meetings. The long-range political threats to NATO tend to come more often than not from within the alliance, rather than without: such as the current impasse between Turkey and Greece over the issue of Greek stationing of military forces on the island of Lemnos, which Turkey maintains must remain demilitarized under a 1923 treaty. Or such as proposals within the US Senate - reflecting a considerable element of US public opinion - to pull some American combat troops out of Europe unless Europeans ''do more'' to defend themselves. And such as the unfortunate failure by various European nations to provide the 3 percent annual real defense increases agreed upon by NATO back in 1978.

It is imperative that despite all the national rivalries among and between NATO members, the military alliance should be recognized for the crucial role it provides on a day-to-day basis in helping to ensure peace in Western Europe.

In that regard, the movement toward upgrading conventional forces is especially promising. The long-range program to bolster conventional forces should proceed as expeditiously as possible. The financial package agreed upon this week is considerable: some $7.8 billion over the next six years. The funds will be used to build hardened shelters for aircraft, improve communications links, and buy ammunition. Indeed, the effort to upgrade equipment and facilities - a 38 to 40 percent increase over current funding - should go far in allaying US congressional complaints that NATO nations are not spending enough on defense. Such steps add up to clear evidence that there is a ''national will'' on the part of European nations to provide for their own defense.

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