New NATO chief takes aim at Soviet charm offensive

The secretary-general of NATO is supposed to be suspicious of the Soviets. And Manfred W"orner is.

The former West German defense minister, who took up the top NATO post last month from Britain's Lord Carrington, says the Soviets have yet to match friendly words with the sort of deeds which would make him rest easier. Indeed, he sees the current thaw in East-West relations creating challenges as well as opportunities for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

``I think you can only afford to compromise to improve East-West relations if you stand on solid ground,'' Mr. W"orner says. And that means keeping a ``coherent, credible defense posture.''

But that may be easier said than done.

W"orner, the first West German to ever serve as secretary-general, comes to Brussels at a time of unprecedented stirring inside the Western alliance. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's charm offensive has found a receptive audience in Western Europe. As a result, it's becoming more difficult to convince Europeans that strong defense is necessary - especially when this means stationing nuclear weapons on their soil.

In W"orner's own country, for instance, more than half those polled now say they don't want to use nuclear weapons as a deterrent against the East bloc.

The selection of a West German to fill the post of NATO secretary-general is significant. It's known that Chancellor Helmut Kohl pushed hard for the choice. Rejection of W"orner would have been seen as a major slap against Bonn. Having a West German in the top position is partly designed to underscore that nation's commitment to the Western alliance.

W"orner is a conservative, known for his strong support for NATO. He has a reputation for thoroughness - carefully poring over background material before making decisions, and seldom speaking hastily.

Settling back in his chair, W"orner admits he has his work cut out for him. Besides trying to keep Western defenses strong, he plans to focus on maintaining alliance unity and taking advantage of opportunities created by the changes in the East.

One place to do this, he says, is in negotiations over reductions in conventional weapons - the tanks and troops that keep Europe on a hair-trigger.

There's a good chance that East and West will hunker down this fall to the difficult task of slashing these forces. W"orner says he'd welcome any Soviet actions that help clear the way for the talks, which would be held in Vienna under the framework of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Meanwhile, W"orner is eager to start a public relations offensive of his own - to change the perception that the West merely reacts to Soviet initiatives.

This view peaked earlier this summer, when the Warsaw Pact plastered NATO with initiatives.

One Warsaw Pact proposal, for instance, was to hold a ``pan-European'' summit to discuss arms control issues. Western leaders balked at the idea, since it wasn't clear at first that North Americans would be welcome in such a forum.

``I personally welcome these Warsaw Pact proposals,'' says W"orner, ``which at least recognize the urgent need to deal with the reduction of the concentration of armed forces in Europe.''

Still, the new secretary-general's biggest challenges are likely to be found closer to home.

One of the most explosive issues now facing the alliance is the modernization of short-range nuclear weapons. Military planners say the weapons have to be updated soon. But the program will likely stir strong opposition among Europeans, particularly in West Germany, where the weapons would be stationed.

NATO has delayed action on the question, calling for the development of a ``comprehensive concept'' for arms control which would put such issues into a larger context. The plan is still in the works.

W"orner says development of this plan will help Western leaders explain the need for viable defenses to their citizens. ``It's necessary to prove that we are able to keep the initiative, that we have a clear vision of European and global security.'' he says.

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