NATO after the new missile agreement

THE North Atlantic Treaty Organization is approaching its 40th birthday. Only careful, pro-active allied policies can prevent this anniversary from prompting a midlife crisis. For several years, United States and European commentators disputed the health of NATO. Broadly speaking, Europeans extolled the benefits of the status quo, while Americans promoted change that would enable the alliance to play an active role in extra-European situations and to adopt a common counterterrorist policy. The outcome of this debate is now moot, since the signing of the double-zero intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) agreement overturns the status quo, a fact that is equally apparent on both sides of the Atlantic. As it approaches middle age, NATO must decide how it is to remain relevant in a partly denuclearized Europe.

Since its formation, NATO has leaned heavily on its nuclear arsenal. Outmanned and outgunned by the Warsaw Pact, it eschewed an expensive conventional-arms race, opting for a cheaper alternative, threatening to use United States nuclear weapons in response to a successful Warsaw Pact assault. Faith in this US nuclear commitment to Europe provided the basis of the transatlantic alliance for almost four decades.

Consequently, many European governments harbor secret misgivings concerning the INF treaty. It will remove the most potent nuclear deterrent on European soil, Pershing 2 and cruise missiles, leaving NATO's threat to ``go nuclear'' dependent upon aging F-111 bombers and short-range missiles and artillery shells. Range factors limit these shells to German soil, arousing German fears of becoming the NATO-Warsaw Pact nuclear battleground. Some commentators assert that the treaty actually increases the likelihood of European conflict, since it decreases the potency of NATO's nuclear counterbalance to the pact's huge conventional advantage, which is unaffected by the treaty.

We reject this reasoning. The INF treaty constitutes a major step forward toward stabilizing the nuclear situation. Moreover, the United States commitment to Europe should be conceived in broad political terms, not as a simplistic weapons count.

INF's critics are not entirely wrong, however. The agreement exposes NATO's serious conventional weakness. It does so at an ominous juncture, when US defense spending has reached a watershed and increases in European defense budgets will prove difficult.

What is to be done? NATO must achieve major improvements in the quality of its conventional deterrent. Absent such improvements, Moscow is unlikely to negotiate away its massive advantage in conventional forces.

A scenario that projects conventional-force improvements absent budgetary increases might appear fanciful. But anyone dealing with NATO on an everyday basis knows otherwise. NATO already spends more on its collective defense than the Warsaw Pact. This total defense figure, however, represents the confused and contradictory efforts of 16 different governments, ensuring that the net spending return is grossly inferior to that of the more cohesive pact. Wonders could be achieved if NATO nations adopted cooperative procurement practices, achieving defense economies of scale and long weapons production runs instead of each trying to protect its own uneconomical defense industry.

The European members of NATO can do a great deal to strengthen the ``European pillar'' of the alliance through enhancing the interoperability of their military units and bringing France and Spain more thoroughly into the European military structure. If NATO's conventional forces are to achieve new credibility, the bulk of the responsibility will rest with those nations in situ.

Meaningful conventional arms control proposals are welcome, but NATO governments must beware. Our conventional forces are already weak. A proposal to cut Warsaw Pact and NATO forces by a ratio of 2 to 1 would appear superficially attractive but, in reality, would serve to enhance the pact's current conventional advantage. Meaningful conventional arms control proposals should focus upon achieving common ceilings in NATO-pact forces and upon diluting the pact's capacity to drive deep into NATO territory, an offensive capacity that NATO neither shares nor envies.

Time is short. If conventional improvements are to be effected before the last of the Pershing 2s and ground-launched cruise missiles leave Europe, the mechanisms to enhance cooperation must be established now. If the signing of the INF treaty necessitates the formulation of a new NATO military strategy, NATO's heads of government should be planning to announce that strategy to the public, both to reaffirm their commitment to NATO and to seize the initiative in the East-West debate. Mikhail Gorbachev has demonstrated his capacity for aggressive, imaginative public diplomacy. Absent a publicized NATO conventional arms control position, Mr. Gorbachev could announce a proposal that was publicly attractive but deleterious to NATO's interest. NATO's heads of government must demonstrate the alliance's capacity to control the pace of public diplomacy.

The INF treaty does not signal the end of NATO. The agreement does, however, constitute a crucial milestone, calling for a basic reassessment of NATO's security policy. If we or our allies fail or procrastinate in this effort, the doomsayers could yet be proved right.

Sen. William V. Roth Jr. (R) of Delaware is chairman of the North Atlantic Assembly's study committee. Reps. Bill Richardson (D) of New Mexico and Doug Bereuter (R) of Nebraska are members.

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