Maintaining NATO's guard

FOUR decades may be a blip of time in the long march of human history. But it is nonetheless a considerable period for a successful military alliance such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Now, with NATO in its fourth decade, it is well to be reminded again of the remarkable stability of this alliance.

As Secretary of State George Shultz observed on his trip to Brussels recently for the organization's annual foreign ministers meeting, ``NATO is in good shape.'' NATO ministers are pleased that they have so far deployed roughly half of the 572 US midrange nuclear missiles planned for Western Europe, despite public protests. Manpower levels remain generally high in Europe, where conscription is required. And NATO members remain upbeat about an easing of East-West tensions, an optimism that stems from the

Reagan-Gorbachev summit.

That said, a number of challenges remain for the alliance:

Weapons duplication: NATO foreign ministers have just agreed to a review process to avoid unnecessary expenses incurred in producing similar weapons. The decision is long overdue.

Financial costs: Many of NATO's European members have upgraded their defense systems, after the US in the late 1970s began to put pressure on Europe to do just that. Spending on defense has continually increased in real terms. The result, in some cases, however, has been to drain economic resources from the already hard-pressed social service sector. Granted, the military in many European nations with high unemployment provides an economic ``safety net'' for young people. Yet, t here is a question about exactly how long the European public will be willing to expend rising outlays for defense when financial resources are strained. That issue could become even more pronounced if European nations divert significant financial resources to the costly Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).

US and NATO: There is also the issue, in the eyes of Europeans, of whether the US will maintain its own buildup in the wake of calls for arms cuts. NATO today, as it has for almost 40 years, guards Western defenses. Governmental and public support should be continued for this durable organization.

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