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NATO Still Stands

`WHEN you deprive it of its essence, it becomes ... an empty shell.'' Thus Poland's foreign minister described the Warsaw Pact military alliance that quietly dissolved itself last week in Budapest.

As Soviet Defense Minister Yazov and Foreign Minister Bessmertnykh looked on, their Eastern European counterparts signed an agreement to disband the pact. Then the Russian delegation disappeared - its absence at a later press conference constituted a gruff ``No comment.''

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Such proceedings are not easy for the Soviets to take. As they stream out of Eastern Europe by the tens of thousands, the Russians want some reason to hold up their heads. So far, they haven't found one. While Soviet officials signed the document ending the Warsaw Pact - founded in 1955 to counter NATO forces, but never used for any reason except to put down anticommunist elements in member states - Czech President Vaclav Havel was contemplating a speech he gives March 21 at NATO headquarters in Brussel s explaining why Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary should be ``affiliate'' members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

And what about NATO? Last year's talk among the Euro-savvy was that NATO was a husk, an outmoded organization that by rights should be dismantled in tandem with the Warsaw Pact. Where's the threat? What purpose can NATO possibly serve with the Berlin Wall down, and the Soviets in mid-perestroika? To question such aggressive assurance - to ask why rush to dismantle a stable and symbolic institution - was to risk derision.

Now two events, Soviet regression and the Persian Gulf war, have doused such assurance with a bucket of cold water. The Gulf war exposed a lack of unity among Europeans regarding global and ``out of area'' responsibilities. It is to the stable, US-led NATO ``pillar,'' therefore, that Warsaw Pact members turn.

Europe still needs NATO. Not all Europeans - those on the German left, for example - are happy about that. In the wake of the Gulf war, the search is on for ways to reduce increased US influence. A new effort to strengthen the nine-nation Western European Union (WEU) is the latest idea. WEU would ``bridge'' NATO and the European Community and give Europe an independent security mechanism. The idea of a separate European-alliance-within-NATO is potentially divisive and troubling, however.

NATO must evolve. Perhaps US-NATO troops in the Gulf should come home. NATO must become more flexible. In the meantime it is an honest broker, offering needed stability.

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