WASHINGTON — The Western military alliance faces the greatest leadership and identity crisis in the nearly four decades of its troubled existence. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has its summit March 2-3; one major question is whether President Reagan can, during the Brussels meeting, set in motion a healing process or can at least arrest centrifugal trends now in development.
The United States, as the principal NATO power, must reassert leadership in an entirely new environment, given the Soviet-American nuclear disarmament negotiations and considering the inevitable realignments time must bring.
Europeans are not sure the U.S. Administration is fully cognizant of this most historic moment in postwar history. Policy urgencies extend beyond the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty and require dealing with major changes in such pivotal nations as West Germany.
The Brussels summit looms at this point as little more than a courtesy call by the United States upon its disoriented allies. The courtesy is designed to make them feel that they are being consulted on the highest level as Washington and Moscow engage in the strategic arms reduction talks (START) on halving their strategic nuclear forces, before Reagan travels to the Soviet capital to sign the new treaty during the summer--if all goes well.
No such a priori consultation occurred before the INF negotiations, although they affected Europe most directly by the mutual withdrawals of Soviet and American missiles. The U.S. allies were at best more or less informed--and at worst ignored--in the course of the secret superpower discussions. That was some improvement over the 1986 Reagan-Gorbachev meeting in Reykjavik, when the President stunned the world by announcing that he was ready to abandon nuclear weapons altogether, thereby jettisoning basic defense doctrines and throwing Western Europe into fearful confusion. As Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate subcommittee on European affairs, remarked the other day, "Reykjavik is considered a psychic landmark." The Europeans, in fact, are not at all eager to see a START pact.
What Reagan will encounter in Brussels, then, is an alliance in disquietude. Europeans are torn between psychological and political desires for military independence from the United States and continued dependence on it--some hoping that both are possible. Many Europeans have long doubted that they could really depend on an American strategic nuclear response in the event of a Soviet attack on the Continent. The French, for example, worry about the United States hiding behind Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative as soon as those weapons can be deployed--a replay of France's own blind World War II fortress mentality, hiding behind the Maginot Line.
The NATO situation is so full of contradictions that Reagan is unlikely to alleviate them, no matter how prepared he may be. The INF Treaty, a watershed militarily as well as emotionally, has not yet been absorbed by the European body politic. To be sure, the European allies had for 10 years wanted a pact to force removal of Soviet SS-20 nuclear missiles pointed at them--and there was much opposition to the modernization of counterbalancing U.S. rockets in Western Europe. But when the deal was done, they lapsed into paralyzing uncertainty about future agreements. They see Mikhail S. Gorbachev's activist policies in contrast to American hesitations.
A crucial case in point is West Germany, where mounting alliance problems are political and military. The United States opposes what is being called the total "denuclearization" of Europe in the wake of the INF Treaty. So do Britain and France, having their own nuclear forces. Washington urges modernization of short-range nuclear missiles to assure battlefield equilibrium. Specifically, the United States wants replacement of the 1960s-vintage Lance missile, which has a 60-mile range, with a 150-mile range rocket as prescribed by a 1983 NATO decision and the modernizing of other tactical systems. Currently, there are 88 Lance missiles in Europe facing 1,400 similar Soviet short-range weapons. Bonn, however, opposes the Lance modernization for purely German reasons.
With the removal of intermediate-range missiles, West Germans see themselves as "singularized," the potential nuclear battlefield in Europe--and they want no part of it. Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his center-right coalition are joining leftist opposition parties in resisting the new Lance; the issue may become as emotional as earlier arguments about modernizing intermediate missiles prior to the INF accord. The expression "National Neutralism" has been coined to describe West Germany's growing anti-nuclear mood; it was Franz Josef Strauss, the leading rightist politician, who called for direct Bonn-Moscow negotiations on trade and improved relations after meeting Gorbachev in Moscow.