THE writing is on the wall. NATO's days are numbered. To an extent that Americans do not seem to realize, a rising groundswell of European opinion favors phasing out the bipolar alliance system and replacing it with a pan-European security system - most likely based on the 35-nation Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) that produced the Helsinki Accords. West European thinking is rapidly moving down this road. French President Fran,cois Mitterand recently called for a confederation of all European states, including the Warsaw Pact countries, before the end of the century. British Foreign Minister Douglas Hurd has said that as the Warsaw Pact disintegrates, the CSCE should play a greater role in European security. The Italians have circulated a proposal to create a single European security system at the next CSCE meeting (Helsinki II). The Belgians are already talking about unilaterally withdrawing some of their troops from the NATO command.
The Bonn government, reassuring its neighbors, insists that a unified Germany will stay within NATO. But Foreign Minister Heinrich Genscher has also more quietly implied that CSCE structures could replace NATO and Warsaw Pact security guarantees, and Prime Minister Helmut Kohl has endorsed Mitterand's idea of a pan-European confederation. Recent polls indicate that a majority of West Germans and nine out of 10 East Germans prefer a unified Germany to be neutral. Once unification occurs, this discomfort with the alliance system will, most likely, become more manifest in German policy.
Such thinking has been cropping up in Eastern European capitals as well. The Czech government has said that the US and the Soviet Union should eventually remove all their troops from Europe, and that NATO and the Warsaw Pact should dissolve into a pan-European system. Similar sentiments have been echoed in Budapest and Warsaw.
This kind of thinking is, to some extent, theoretical. For now, Europeans on both sides of the Elbe insist that Germany should remain a member of NATO and be, thereby, tied into the prevailing security structure. West Europeans still face a massive Soviet army in Eastern Europe and, therefore, still want NATO security guarantees.
As Europeans consider the future, though, it is not hard to see why they gravitate toward a pan-European security system based on small, defensively oriented military forces and some type of collective-security model. By integrating with Eastern Europe, West Europeans would gain a buffer against a potentially resurgent Soviet Union. Eastern Europeans, by being more tied into the West, would also feel more secure against the potential of Soviet aggression. And all Europeans would gain greater security against potential German aggression, through a general treaty limiting military forces against an aggressor - a new Concert of Europe.
But probably most central to Europeans' attraction to a pan-European system is their weariness of decades of continental polarization. The threat of war is ever more abstract and the appeal of greater cultural and economic integration between East and West ever stronger.
On the whole, the Soviets appear ready to go along with this trend. Historically, they have promoted the idea of disbanding the alliances. In recent months they backpedaled from this position, apparently in hopes that the alliance structure could be used to constrain the movement toward German unification. But as unification has grown more certain, the Soviets have been increasingly touting the notion of a pan-European structure. Apparently they see it as a way of backing out of the cold war without making the United States the victor and, more importantly, a way to assure their inclusion in the economic integration of Europe.
The US seems uneasy with this trend away from the alliance structure, though, virtually ignoring the talk of a pan-European security system. The Bush administration has insisted that NATO should persist even if the Warsaw Pact folds and that American troops should stay in Western Europe even if Soviet troops leave Eastern Europe. While these may be viable positions in the short run, it's important that the US not resist the trends toward European unity.
The West Europeans are oriented to including the US in Europe. But if the US is seen as obstructing movement toward integration and away from superpower domination, Europeans may become more inclined to push the US out. This would be unfortunate for Europe as well as the US, because the Soviet Union and especially Germany would gain a more dominant position, upsetting the emerging equilibrium.
The Bush administration has shown some awareness of these potentials by stating clearly that US troops will remain in Europe only as long as the West Europeans want them there. All should be well if the US holds to this policy and is equally responsive to the trends away from the alliance structure. It is not necessary for the US to get out in front of the parade for pan-Europeanism, but if the US lags behind, it has the potential for being left behind.