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NATO decline: opportunity for Europe

When Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia recently proposed legislation calling for the withdrawal of US troops in Europe if the Europeans did not raise defense spending, tremors shook Washington. Richard Burt, assistant secretary of state for European affairs, told Congress that the amendment would undercut the credibility of the United States as a dependable alliance partner and would strengthen the position of left-wing neutralists in Western Europe.

Recent developments in Europe, however, suggest the possibility of a different result. It isn't the left-wing neutralists who do most of the doubting of American dependability these days. Some of the most pro-Western and anticommunist parts of the Western European political spectrum have come to the conclusion that it isn't a good idea anymore to rely completely on the US to define and defend the interests of the West. And they have started to do something about it.

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On the same day the Senate finally rejected the Nunn amendment by a surprisingly close vote, representatives of seven NATO countries, including France, Britain, and West Germany, met in Paris to discuss ways to strengthen European military cooperation and promote European interests within NATO. Diverse political figures have called for greater European independence in defense. For now, the main practical result has been expanded German-French arms co-production.

Some of the motives behind this process are home-grown in Europe, such as the need to coordinate arms production. Uncertainty regarding the future course of the US, frustration with US policies, and European inability to change them are major factors that have led European leaders to seek greater military autonomy.

The inclination of Europeans to look beyond the security guarantee of the US has grown in recent years, as American and European views on arms control and detente became increasingly divergent and unilateral American decisions on East-West trade, the gas pipeline, the neutron bomb, deficits and interest rates , and arms control postures caused serious strains in the alliance. While each crisis was eventually surmounted amid claims that NATO was stronger than ever, each left its mark and contributed to the long-term breakup of the alliance. The fact that 40 percent of the Senate voted for the Nunn amendment was taken as further evidence that the US role in NATO is uncertain and subject to sudden unilateral revisions.

Enormous obstacles certainly stand in the way of any serious attempt to form an integrated European army, as was suggested in the 1950s, or a multilaterally controlled nuclear force, as was discussed in the '60s. The German government makes it clear that the European option is no alternative to NATO and the alliance with the US. But the possibility of a more independent European military role is being explored, and structures to direct it are being created. And the next crisis in the alliance will doubtlessly strengthen the trend.

The consequences of this development are unsettling. French and British nuclear forces are projected to expand: from some 300 warheads capable of reaching the Soviet Union to well over 1,000 in the next decade. These forces plagued the US-Soviet talks on Euro-strategic missiles last year, and they may present major obstacles to any future bilateral arms control agreements. As security policy becomes an increasingly multilateral affair, coordination within the West will become more difficult, and it will make less and less sense for arms control to be carried on in bilateral talks between the US and the USSR.

In the short term, the Atlantic Alliance provides much-needed structure and stability in the usually anarchic world of arms competition between the military blocs, and should be preserved. Efforts to reach consensus on questions of East-West relations and arms control, as well as international economics, should be redoubled, and the Reagan administration's positions will not form the basis for that consensus.

In the long run, the Europeans will develop more autonomy in defense matters at the expense of NATO and the US. The crucial question is not whether, but how. If the breakup takes place suddenly and unilaterally, it could stimulate latent nationalisms in various countries, raise tensions throughout Europe, and be profoundly destabilizing. But the ''withering away'' of NATO also offers Europe a historic opportunity, if it takes place gradually within the context of consultations among the Western nations and between East and West. The challenge will be to use this process as a way to move toward European security based on a deescalation of the military confrontation in Central Europe.

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