AS the external alliances and internal political structure of the Warsaw Pact nations continue to change, the role of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is likely to change as well. NATO won't disestablish itself in quite the way Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnazde hopes - phasing itself out in tandem with the Warsaw Pact. The deconstruction of Stalinism in the Soviet bloc doesn't necessarily mean that the alliance of Western democracies is outmoded. To the contrary.
As the East bloc struggles to alter its political and economic identity, NATO can be an important stabilizing force. And collective security is no less an issue today. No one knows how events in Eastern Europe will unfold.
But amid talk of a reunified Germany, a strengthened European Community, and new East-West arms control and military arrangements, NATO's role may increasingly shift from a military to a political one. It probably is time to remove some of the US troops from Europe. This would be a sign by the White House that Washington wants to deal early on with tensions that may increase in the Western alliance as perestroika works its way through the East bloc. In West Germany, particularly, popular leftist sentiment runs deep for disarmament and a reduced US presence.
But talk that the end of the cold war has eliminated NATO's purpose - that it is a representative of an old order - is short-sighted. So is some talk in Congress that a reduced NATO commitment could save US dollars.
Western and European security issues shouldn't be subordinated to the US budget deficit. That's dangerously parochial.
NATO offers a needed framework for negotiating reduced military tensions. NATO can divvy up verification duties. It can respond to regional security questions the economically oriented European Community cannot. If in the future Hungary and Romania take up arms over an ethnic dispute, for example, NATO could be peacemaker.
Much of the character and role of a changed NATO is going to depend on the White House and its ability to help shape a NATO responsive to new demands. That work needs to be taken up now.