SOVIET Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze's visit to NATO headquarters tomorrow is seen as fresh evidence that the Soviet Union views the Western alliance as an acceptable force for stability on the European continent. The visit, the first by any representative of a Warsaw Pact country to NATO, culminates a shift in Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's position from advocating dissolution of the two alliances to supporting their maintenance as security counterweights. It was Mr. Shevardnadze, in Brussels this week to sign the first trade agreement between the Soviet Union and the European Community, who requested the meeting with NATO Secretary General Manfred W"orner.
Mr. W"orner said in an interview that Shevardnadze's request ``clearly shows the interest the Soviets take in the continuing role of NATO.'' He added that, although Shevardnadze's consideration of NATO as possibly a ```model' might be an exaggeration,'' it ``indicates how they must look at this alliance.''
W"orner reiterated NATO foreign ministers' ``consideration'' of Gorbachev's proposal for a Europe-wide meeting next year of the Helsinki group, known as the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), but he emphasized that such a meeting must have a specific and ``worthwhile'' agenda.
W"orner said that while he expects the planned 1992 Helsinki conference to ``deal with the German question in substance,'' he does not foresee the issue of German reunification being on the agenda of any CSCE meeting next year.
The Shevardnadze-W"orner meeting comes only days after foreign ministers from NATO's 16 member-countries met here amid confidence that the alliance has helped foster the atmosphere of reduced tensions across Europe. At the same time, the ministerial meeting began to answer questions about NATO's future role.
After tabling NATO's draft treaty for reduction of conventional forces in Europe Thursday, the ministers Friday approved a common position for the ``Open Skies'' initiative to be taken up at a February conference in Ottawa among NATO and Warsaw Pact countries. Under ``Open Skies,'' proposed by President Bush last May, countries would agree to open their airspace to limited military observation overflights to enhance mutual confidence and arms control verification.
NATO ministers seemed most comfortable in emphasizing the alliance's continued importance in maintaining what the British Foreign Secretary called a ``robust'' security structure. NATO officials feel a growing need to remind the public that, despite reduced East-West tensions, military capabilities have yet to be reduced, and intentions can change virtually overnight.
Considerably less clarity was expressed on US Secretary of State James Baker III's call for a ``new security architecture.'' His talk of a ``growing political role'' for the alliance is generally well received.
The final communiqu'e took up points from Mr. Baker's speech in Berlin last week, citing a NATO role in addressing such ``new threats'' as terrorism and drug trafficking. One NATO official noted that the so-called ``new threats'' are historically the concern of national law enforcement organizations, adding that it would be difficult for a military alliance such as NATO to develop any substantive role in such problems.
Better received was Baker's proposal for a growing role for NATO in arms reduction verification.