CHANGES in NATO forces have been in the works for about two years, and the basic plan revealed in Brussels on Tuesday is not a surprise. The ``new NATO'' will be streamlined and will take on a more European cast. This is in keeping with geopolitical and budgetary reality both in Europe and the US. US troops will be reduced by half to about 200,000; the old ``frontline'' strategy of halting huge Soviet tank offensives across the Polish border will give way to the building of lighter rapid deployment forces (European armies, US air support) capable of putting out the fires of regional conflict.

The NATO restructuring should take place slowly, and it will - between 1994 and 2000. There are still a number of tough issues to work out, both among the European NATO states, and between the Europeans and the US, with regard to security in Europe. The Europeans clearly want a larger role, the preeminent role, in deciding military questions on the continent. Yet as the recent past has shown, when push comes to shove, they also want an American presence. Last summer NATO was discussed as an irrelevant i nstitution in Europe. During the Persian Gulf crisis, however, and the Soviet hard-line crackdown this past winter (particularly during Moscow's intervention in the Baltics), both West and East Europeans suddenly rediscovered the virtues of a stable security alliance.

Surely the role of NATO has become less crucial as the Soviet threat has been reduced. Today the Kremlin needs Europe, and Europe's wealth. Crises are more likely to occur in areas of mutual US-European interest. Who will call the shots in dealing with ``out of area'' problems in the Middle East, or the Balkans? It isn't clear how or whether NATO could send a rapid deployment force out of area.

The independent Western European Union (WEU) is being promoted by Europeans who want their own security and capacity to respond to the broader world. What links the WEU will establish - with NATO, the EC, or elsewhere - is up in the air.

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