LEADERS of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization met in an upbeat atmosphere here yesterday, praising what President Bush called the ``peaceful revolution'' of Eastern Europe but stressing NATO's continued utility at a time of Eastern instability. Describing the 16-nation military alliance as a ``motor'' for democratic reform and peace on the European continent, NATO leaders appeared determined to demonstrate its essential role when lessening East-West tensions have some observers questioning the organization's future - and the United States' long-term commitment to it.
``The alliance allows a stable and secure framework for evolution,'' said NATO Secretary General Manfred W"orner. He described the organization as a ``pole of security'' in a world where instability remains a reality.
The all-day meeting was called to allow Mr. Bush to brief NATO leaders on his weekend summit with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Malta. Bush told a press conference he is convinced that Mr. Gorbachev's leadership ``deserves new thinking - absolutely mandates new thinking.''
At the same time, Bush cautioned against ``blurring the distinctions'' between positive trends and present realities. To calm Western European alarm over talk of impending US defense cuts, Bush reiterated his pre-summit pronouncement that the US will maintain a significant European presence as long as Europe wants it.
As one Turkish diplomat said, ``Europeans sometimes have difficulty deciding what they want. They don't like it when the two superpowers aren't talking,'' he added. ``But when they [the US and Soviet Union] start getting along, that makes them uneasy.''
Secretary General W"orner stressed the 40-year-old organization's importance as ``nearly the only transatlantic platform that keeps the United States committed to Europe.''
Both Bush and W"orner refused to speculate on a second round of conventional-force reductions after current negotiations in Vienna are completed (perhaps by the end of next year). Bush pledged to ``do more'' to keep the Vienna talks moving toward an accord next year.
Bush did not answer a reporter who asked whether the cold war was over. The president said that if he answered affirmatively, ``people back home'' would wonder why the US maintains its strong European presence.
There appeared to be a realization that talk of the West's ``victory in the cold war'' would lead automatically to questions about the alliance's future role. Bush's repeated reference to the ``rapidity of change'' in Eastern Europe was one way of cautioning that the alliance's military function is far from outmoded. At the same time, both Bush and W"orner spoke generally of a growing political and economic role for the alliance.
The question of eventual reunification of the two Germanys continues to cause ripples among alliance members. West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl acknowledged this. But he emphasized to the NATO leaders that his plan for reunification includes no timetable. At the same time, Mr. Kohl acknowledged Bush's position that any eventual reunification take place within the principles of the Helsinki accords, which mandate that border changes in Europe are made only through peaceful and democratic means.