NEW YORK — Rarely has a group of leaders met after having so completely achieved its objectives as did the participants at the NATO summit in London. With communism collapsing, even in the Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact disintegrated and Germany unifying, the Cold War had clearly ended. All this has culminated in Mikhail S. Gorbachev's consent to a unified Germany in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
In the resulting euphoria, a word of caution may seem captious. But while the West is celebrating, its underlying cohesion is being hollowed out.
True, existing institutions must be changed in light of the dramatic developments of the past year. But progress toward German unification has been more rapid than progress toward solving underlying structural problems. Indeed, there is a danger in the London communique that the world it envisages will be safe only on the assumption of a permanent Soviet weakness; that Germany will be torn between its ties to the West and its temptations toward the East; and that the United States may become progressively irrelevant to the evolution of Europe.
One reason for the allies' avoidance of these trends is the degree to which Gorbachev has mesmerized the West.
The Soviet president will undoubtedly go down in history as a figure who changed the destiny of his people. But do we understand what is required to help him through the wrenching process under way in Moscow? In so fluid a situation, is not the only sound course for the Alliance to put forward a program sustainable on its merit by any foreseeable Soviet leader?
There was a tendency in London to seek to co-opt traditional critics and to reassure the Soviet leadership by falling in with the premises of 30 years of anti-NATO propaganda. Several briefers argued that the communique would enable Gorbachev to tell his colleagues that NATO no longer posed a threat to the Soviet Union.
In what way was NATO ever such a threat? The end of the Cold War does not require a denial of 40 years of crises, repressions and documented assistance to global terrorism. What it does require is an answer to two questions: toward what threat and with what means is the Alliance to be directed? And what is to be the political role of NATO?
The London communique announced drastic reductions in conventional weapons and a new nuclear strategy. But since it did not define the nature of the Soviet threat, the various conventional measures--the reduction of forces, the ceiling on German forces, the lowering of readiness and a greater reliance on reinforcements--are hard to assess.
The domestic turmoil in the Soviet Union makes a conventional attack from it highly unlikely for the foreseeable future. But even after a strategic arms agreement, the Soviet Union will retain a nuclear arsenal 10 times larger than the combined British and French nuclear forces. This will pose the most plausible Soviet threat.
The new NATO nuclear doctrine is thus puzzling. The London summit announced the modification of the flexible-response doctrine, its readiness to withdraw all short-range nuclear weapons from the Continent and its commitment to use nuclear weapons only as a last resort.
But why has flexible response become so controversial? All it ever asserted was that NATO would use the minimum force to repel aggression. Even in nuclear war, a series of firebreaks would be attempted before the ultimate recourse. In what way does the new doctrine differ? Indeed, what is the new doctrine? We are in the midst of denuclearizing Europe, shifting from the withdrawal of intermediate-range missiles to the withdrawal of medium-range weapons and now to nuclear artillery. After all short-range nuclear weapons have been eliminated, only nuclear bombs on tactical aircraft will remain. How soon before they, too, come under attack? Indeed, what is their rationale?
Moreover, denuclearization is unlikely to be the end of the story. If Germany is serious about banishing the risk of nuclear war from its soil, it will come to interpret the doctrine of last resort as meaning no first use of nuclear weapons. Then America will be asked to risk nuclear devastation on behalf of a country unprepared to run such risks for itself. Is that not precisely the definition of the decoupling of the United States from Europe that 40 years of NATO policy has sought to avoid and Soviet policy to achieve? Are we then back to the doctrine of massive retaliation, with its choice of suicide or surrender?