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Regional Outlook : With No Cold War to Fight, NATO Faces an Identity Crisis : Both East and West agree that the United States must remain a key player in refurbished alliance.


WASHINGTON — When the top leaders of the 16 NATO nations meet this week in what could be their most significant summit conference ever, the formal agenda will not reflect the most important issue: the future relationship of the United States with a post-Cold War Europe that seems free of the threat of war for the first time in almost 60 years.

There is no dispute between President Bush and the other presidents, prime ministers and chancellors planning to attend the meeting about the need to refurbish the transatlantic partnership that binds Washington to Europe. Even Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev agrees that the United States must remain a key player on the Continent.

Despite isolationist rumblings at the grass-roots on both sides of the Atlantic, European leaders, both East and West, are unanimous--possibly for the first time since the end of World War II--in their support for continued U.S. participation in European affairs.

There is no similar agreement, however, on how this should be accomplished.

The stakes are tremendous. Twice in this century, the United States was drawn into European wars that it tried--and failed--to ignore. And economic relations between the United States and Europe, including businesses operating on both sides of the Atlantic, now have a value approaching a trillion dollars a year.

"Europe has proved itself to be a cockpit of war," a senior Administration official said. "The world is too dangerous now to allow Europe to revert to its natural state. The natural state of Europe, for all of its wonderful marks of civilization, goes to war quite regularly and harbors rather antique hostilities, animosities and grudges."

For the last 40 years, the official said, the balance in Europe has been controlled by the United States and the Soviet Union, two nations on the periphery of the Continent. The result has been one of the longest periods of peace the region has ever known.

Bush Administration officials say privately they would like to convert the North Atlantic Treaty Organization into something of an executive committee of Europe--a grouping of economically strong and politically democratic states that could dominate the Continent for decades to come. As a first step, the summit meeting is expected to redesign the alliance, which Washington traditionally has dominated, to give it a more political character.

But, in a tacit admission that a NATO-centered Europe may not work out, the Administration is also pursuing a second avenue: It is pushing for a formal consultative link between the United States and the 12-nation European Community, the Continent's rich man's club that is quickly evolving into one of the world's strongest economic forces.

As a third element of its strategy, the U.S. government endorses efforts to strengthen the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the 35-nation organization joining the United States, Canada and every nation of Europe except for isolationist Albania. It is the only forum in which the United States and the Soviet Union participate more or less as equals. But, so far, the Administration has assigned a decidedly secondary role to CSCE.

Not surprisingly, the Soviet Union and other members of the crumbling Warsaw Pact prefer to make the security group the Continent's most important institution because it is the only one in which they play a part. Key Western European nations, all members of both NATO and the European Community, generally expect the community to become the dominant institution, although they support a continued strong role for NATO.

It is not hard to see why Europe looms so large in the Administration's thinking. As Jay P. Kosminsky, a policy analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation, put it, Europe's "820 million people inhabit the world's industrial heartland, producing just about 50% of the entire world's economic output, compared to roughly 30% for the United States. . . . Europe potentially is either America's greatest ally or its most dangerous rival."

For 41 years, NATO has been the cornerstone of Western security. But it now is facing an identity crisis. Created to link the United States with the then-militarily struggling nations of Western Europe to deter aggression from Josef Stalin's Soviet Union, NATO now must devise a strategy to cope with glasnost, the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact and the rampant prosperity of NATO's own membership.

The NATO summit, starting Thursday in London, is certain to adopt measures intended to give the organization a more political coloration and make it appear less threatening to the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, the steps are expected to be modest, concentrating on matters such as verification of arms control agreements, which are security-related although not strictly military.

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