THE North Atlantic Treaty Organization's 40th anniversary celebration in Brussels next week may mark a change in the pecking order of NATO nations as well as alliance longevity. West Germany, long a partner the United States could count on to sit soberly in the background, is asserting its right to independent political views. It's a change in demeanor all other NATO nations may have to adapt to in coming years.
``Germany's a different kind of country now. It deserves and will demand a more important role within NATO,'' said Paul Nitze, one of the main architects of post-World War II US foreign policy, at a Monitor breakfast with reporters.
One of NATO's main problems is that it now slights West Germany's concerns, said Mr. Nitze, who recently left his post as arms control adviser to President Bush. Yet Bonn fields the largest European-based conventional army in NATO. Its geographic position at the heart of Central Europe has made it a key player in world politics for centuries.
``I think we need to be more sympathetic to the problems of Central Europe than we have been in the past,'' Nitze said.
The current row over short-range nuclear forces is thus reflective of deeper disagreement. And the argument, which pits West Germany and continental NATO nations against the US and Britain, is persisting - to President Bush's discomfiture.
West Germany wants early negotiations with the Soviet Union on cuts in short-range nuclear missiles based in Europe. The US has long opposed such negotiations, saying they could lead to removal of a crucial aspect of nuclear deterrence.
Last week, the Bush administration agreed to accept negotiations in principle. But officials said a treaty limiting conventional arms in Europe would have to come first.
That's not good enough for the West German government, which is under political pressure to open such talks. ``There is still a gap between their position and ours,'' Secretary of State James Baker III admitted earlier this week.
Thus the brief boomlet of hope that the coming NATO summit would not be dominated by the short-range missile issue has faded.
The squabble may overshadow the fact that hopes are growing over the prospects of a conventional arms reduction treaty with the Soviets. Moscow's latest proposal in these talks, outlined officially in Vienna recently, is radical in its reductions and close to the Western stance. It accepts certain important NATO conditions, such as limits on the maximum forces that can be maintained by any one NATO or Warsaw Pact country.
``Gorbachev is indicating that he would like to work out a deal in the conventional field,'' Nitze judged.
Roadblocks do remain, however, notably Soviet insistence on including certain categories of weapons, such as aircraft, that NATO would prefer to exclude.