THE next American administration will come to office at a time of remarkable opportunity. Blessed with many positive trends in East-West relations, and challenged by the need to get America's financial house in order, the administration should meet with its NATO allies to shape a new transatlantic bargain responsive to both developments. A new mandate for the alliance should reflect the continuing need for policies that ensure deterrence while seeking to expand cooperation and dialogue with the Warsaw Pact countries; these are the two principles enshrined in the Harmel Report in 1967. But the new mandate must also reflect the determination to build a real European pillar within the Atlantic Alliance, providing the basis for gradual assumption by the European allies of more defense and leadership responsibilities.
The blueprint for such a bargain has been outlined in a special North Atlantic Assembly parliamentary report entitled ``NATO in the 1990s,'' recently adopted by a transatlantic group of legislators including Democrats and Republicans, North Americans and Europeans, Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, in which we were privileged to participate.
That committee has presented its report to President Reagan, but the task of seeking implementation of its recommendations will fall largely to the next administration. President Reagan has already provided a foundation for this effort with his explicit support over the last several months for a European pillar in NATO and with the improvements in East-West relations that have flowed from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the Moscow summit.
NATO remains the best way for United States, Canada, and the West European NATO nations to ensure their national security and to seek a more stable nonthreatening security structure in Europe. But a fundamental change has occurred in the US-European relationship, reflecting the gradual relative increase in the economic strength and political potential of the West European allies.
Some American observers have reacted to this change by calling for the US to cut back severely its contributions to NATO, some hoping to force the Europeans to make up the difference. But this approach could easily backfire. General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev's public diplomacy in Western Europe has yielded results. Consequently, US troop withdrawals, threatened or accomplished, would not necessarily prompt an enhanced European defense effort.
Some other observers argue from the perspective of that familiar homily, ``If it ain't broke, don't fix it.'' In other words, the NATO alliance has served our interests well, helped maintain peace and ensure Western political unity for nearly 40 years, and we should not make fundamental changes. But NATO has already changed in many ways over the last 40 years, and will likely have to continue to change in the future if it is to remain relevant to the interests of all the allies.
The report on ``NATO in the 1990s'' calls for holding firmly onto most aspects of NATO's current structure and policies. The US should sustain a major military presence in Europe while structuring its nuclear forces to ensure deterrence of any threats to Western security. All members should reaffirm their participation in the alliance. NATO's current strategy, and most important, its flexible response doctrine, which keeps its defensive options open, should be sustained.
But the alliance also needs to change. The fabric of its cohesion is slowly being eaten away by resentment: American resentment that the US pays the lion's share for NATO defenses, and European resentment that the US always calls the tune.
In the near term it would be easier to do nothing. Change always is upsetting. And bureaucracies throughout the NATO countries are naturally inclined to advise that we leave well enough alone. Some American officials fear that greater European influence over alliance decisions will ``undermine'' the US position in NATO.
But the authors of the ``NATO in the 1990s'' report are convinced that changes are needed if we are to maintain a strong and vital alliance between North America and Western Europe for the indefinite future. This alliance helps ensure a degree of peace and stability among the major world powers that has no historic precedent. To ensure such continuity, there must be change. Over the next decade, the NATO allies should consciously reallocate burdens and responsibilities among themselves to build a true twin-pillar support for NATO.
A NATO summit soon after the new administration comes to Washington should affirm commitment to policies guided by the need for defense, dialogue, and evolution toward a real European pillar for NATO. Members should pledge to examine every future NATO decision in the light of this commitment.
We have also agreed that all NATO countries should provide, without compensation, military bases needed by US forces serving the alliance; that not just the US but all wealthier NATO members should provide assistance to the poorer members - Portugal, Greece, Turkey.
We also recommended the establishment of a ``Western Working Group on Global Security Issues'' to provide a framework for consultation and contingency planning to develop complementary approaches for dealing with ``out-of-area'' challenges to Western security. Recognizing the formal and political constraints on NATO's mandate, such a group should be separate from NATO with its membership open to NATO allies, Japan, and other Western democracies that might wish to participate.
If we are lucky, the improving East-West relationship will lead to further sound and verifiable arms agreements in the nuclear, chemical, and conventional areas. Improved East-West cooperation may also help keep third world issues from becoming bones of contention between the US and the Soviet Union. But whether or not there is success in these arms control efforts and toward minimizing conflict in third world regions, the NATO allies must get their own act together to guarantee that their alliance remains as successful in the 1990s as it has been in its first four decades.
Sen. William V. Roth Jr. (R) of Delaware, Rep. Bill Richardson (D) of New Mexico, and Rep. Doug Bereuter (R) of Nebraska are members of the Committee on NATO in the 1990s.