AFTER a year in the making, plans to adapt NATO to the post-cold-war era are nearly complete. Although key characteristics of the Western alliance will remain intact, a strategy review calls for sweeping change within the 16-member organization.
On the political side, NATO wants to strengthen ties with the former members of the Warsaw Pact, though it declines to offer outright membership. (See story below.) On the military side, it is abandoning its single-minded dedication of forces to the Soviet threat in favor of force reductions of 50 percent and a restructuring of the remaining troops so that they are more flexible.
These and other changes, says NATO Secretary-General Manfred W"orner, comprise ``the most radical transformation of our alliance in its history.''
Mr. W"orner was speaking at a two-day meeting of NATO foreign ministers here in Copenhagen last week. The ministerial meeting focused on the political dimension of the security review; a meeting of NATO defense ministers two weeks ago tackled the military aspect. The alliance has only one broad area left to rethink - its command structure - before NATO heads of state meet to approve the strategy review in Rome on Nov. 7 and 8.
The mandate to redefine the role of the Atlantic alliance came at the NATO summit in London last July. Since then, the review process has been evolving in ``brainstorming sessions'' among the 16 ambassadors to NATO. The ambassadors can be accompanied by up to a half-dozen staff members, but these sessions allow only a notetaker. The result is a ``much freer atmosphere than usual,'' says a NATO diplomat and the process ``in part has been people just working out in their own minds'' the implication of the sea-change in East-West relations.
NATO's opening up to the former Warsaw Pact members is one result of the strategy review and is the key feature of the alliance's new political face.
Several former members of the Warsaw Pact want to join NATO, but the alliance has refused, one reason being that this would antagonize the Soviet Union. This strongly worded statement, however, ``is as close as we can come'' to granting outright membership, says the NATO diplomat.
The foreign ministers in Copenhagen cautioned repeatedly that the statement refers only to NATO's political commitment to supporting democracy in Eastern Europe, including the Soviet Union. It does not extend a military guarantee to the region, they emphasized. Nor, said United States Secretary of State James Baker III, is NATO pointing to any one source - such as Moscow - when it talks about the threat of ``coercion or intimidation.''
It was privately admitted, however, that the wording is ambiguous. When pressed, Mr. W"orner and other officials simply said they were not going to spell out all the ``scenarios'' to which the statement might apply.
In fact, it is the inability to predict scenarios and threats that has caused the Atlantic Alliance to review its military structure.
The Soviets still present a military imbalance, but there is no longer a threat of a massive attack via Germany, for which NATO was single-mindedly oriented.
With the major threat gone, NATO will reduce its forces by 50 percent. Other threats that could spill over into the NATO area - such as instability in the Middle East or Eastern Europe - are hard to define. This is why NATO defense ministers agreed two weeks ago that alliance forces must be reorganized into smaller, multinational groupings that are flexible and theoretically able to handle any threat.
Meanwhile, a thorny problem endangering the strategy review process was laid aside last week. The problem centered on Western Europe's search for its own ``security identity'' as it moves toward political and monetary union.
If the 12 members of the European Community are to become a United States of Europe, then they should have an independent military role from NATO, France especially has been arguing. Though a member of NATO, France does not belong to its military structure and resents the US's dominant role in the alliance. The French idea, however, is objected to by the US and other alliance members, who say it would undermine NATO.
An expected French eruption in Copenhagen over the issue never materialized, however. Instead, French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas said he was satisfied with a definition of the alliance's role as it emerged at the end of the meeting on Friday.
In its final communiqu'e and in a statement on NATO's core tasks, the members supported a European security identity and a stronger role for the Europeans in NATO.
It is up to the Europeans, the statement said, to decide how they want to shape this defense identity.
But the ``identity'' must not detract from NATO as the ``essential forum'' for consultation among its members and the prime ``venue for agreement'' on policies bearing on members' security commitments, the final communiqu'e says. And a European defense identity must not undermine NATO's link with North America, the 16 agreed.
In essence, interprets a European ambassador to NATO, ``everything that concerns the security of NATO members should be decided here [at NATO] and consulted about here ... The Twelve [the EC] can do anything they want, but they can not take a final decision.''