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Charting a course for NATO's future

NATO officials are meeting in Washington this week against a backdrop of worsening East-West relations, increasing threats to European oil supplies in the Persian Gulf, and small but significant cracks in Western alliance unity.

''Today there may be no wrenching and immediate crisis in the Atlantic alliance to parallel many of those in the past,'' observes Robert Hunter, director of European studies at Georgetown University's Center for Strategic & International Studies. ''But underlying factors in relations across the Atlantic . . . present, if anything, a more ominous picture for the future.''

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High on the agenda for alliance foreign ministers meeting here are the effect on NATO solidarity of Dutch hesitancy to accept US-built cruise missiles, recent threats from Moscow against European countries where such intermediate-range nuclear missiles are being deployed, continued reliance on the ''nuclear crutch'' in place of a buildup in conventional military forces, differences over policy in Central America, and the lack of any progress in US-Soviet arms-control talks. The NATO officials meetings here will be followed 10 days from now by the annual seven-nation economic summit in London.

There is at present little difference of opinion on Persian Gulf policy as the US seeks to bolster Saudi Arabia with air defense rockets and aerial refueling tankers rather than intervening more directly. While the US counts on the region for just 500,000 barrels of oil a day (only 3 percent of domestic requirements), Western Europe is much more reliant on the Gulf, from which it receives 1.5 million barrels a day.

As they have in the past, US officials are expected to use the situation in the Gulf to push the Europeans for stronger defenses on their part. The rationale here is that the US (as reflected in the Reagan administration's maritime strategy) has increasing commitments around the world - like protecting European oil supplies - and cannot concentrate as much on Europe as it has in the past. Europeans worry about this, especially moves in Congress to reduce US troop levels in Europe.

At the same time, there have been recent overt threats by Soviet officials against European countries that have agreed to accept new Pershing II and cruise missiles. Kremlin leaders are said to have told Italian officials recently that Italy would be turned into ''another Pompeii'' if it ever launched the cruise missiles being deployed there against the Soviet Union or its allies.

In a letter to Green Party leaders in West Germany this week, Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko warned that ''whoever makes others a target will inevitably become a target himself.''

The official Soviet news agency Tass Tuesday also warned European officials meeting in Washington that the US would try to involve them in ''massive military intervention'' in the Persian Gulf.

For the most part, such warnings and threats have not undercut alliance unity. The voices of opposition to ''Euromissile'' deployment have quieted noticably since the Pershings and cruises began arriving on European soil last year. And there have been some indications of better alliance cooperation in building conventional defenses.

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The French (who make important contributions to common defense while remaining independent of NATO's joint command structure) and West Germans were to announce this week that they will build a helicopter together. Eight NATO countries are exploring the possibility of a joint naval frigate project.

But such things are exceptions to continued disagreements within the alliance over ''burden sharing.'' The US, for example, would like the Germans to invest $ 10 billion over the next five years in NATO's military infrastructure. The Germans, however, say the can't afford to spend more than about $6 billion. A recent government report on Canada's armed forces warns that ''in the event of hostilities, the Canadian Forces would not be sufficiently manned and equipped to carry out the tasks expected of them in supporting the allied effort.''

Europeans long have relied on relatively cheap nuclear weapons possessed largely by the US to deter attack from the Warsaw Pact, which has a larger conventional arsenal. The US has been pressing for increases in conventional-forces spending by its European allies, but without much success. A recent public opinion poll taken in the 10 countries of the European Economic Community indicates economic and social - not defense - issues are of prime concern.

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