LONDON — The Persian Gulf War has convinced members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that the United States must continue to play the leading role in the security structure of the alliance.
In addition, the varying responses of the 16 member nations to the Gulf crisis touched off by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait have raised questions about whether there is too much dependence on the European elements of the alliance.
These are the views of many strategic analysts and NATO diplomats as they examine the future of a diminishing alliance in the wake of the overwhelming victory of Western and Arab coalition forces against Iraq.
"Last summer, many were asking, 'Who needs NATO?' " said one British NATO official in Brussels. "Now, it is clear that key members of NATO were responsible for the victory.
"Further, the Soviets are behaving shiftily again. So some of the ideas of rolling up NATO now seem premature. The Gulf shows how important the United States is in any joint action. And no other security organization except NATO includes the Americans."
Everyone agrees that NATO will be slimmed down in the years to come, with American forces in Europe being slashed by half or more. But NATO planners say that these forces can be leaner and more effective, based on the effectiveness of state-of-the-art weaponry and mobile tactics demonstrated in the war against Iraq.
Some American officials are concerned about various plans to create a separate European defense entity, inside or outside of the European Community.
A common European defense policy has been recommended by Jacques Delors, president of the EC's European Commission, to enable Europe to respond more effectively in a crisis like that in the Gulf.
Outside of NATO, the only European defense organization is the Western European Union (WEU), all nine of whose members also belong to both NATO and the EC. Since NATO has no authority for "out-of-area" operations such as the Gulf conflict, some analysts have suggested that the WEU could coordinate such a role in the future.
NATO Secretary General Manfred Woerner remarked recently that his organization is not a suitable instrument for out-of-area action. He added: "In time, you may see European nations face challenges outside their area together, perhaps through the Western European Union defense organization."
But an underlying rivalry between NATO and the WEU has been developing, since it is not yet clear what role, if any, the WEU will assume. At present, it is something of a foundling with a small staff divided between London and Paris.
Even when it tried to coordinate the dispatch of European navy ships to the Gulf, it basically had to rely on NATO's infrastructure. And questions are often raised about how much authority the WEU might try to take from NATO.
The United States would not like to see the WEU become, in effect, the EC's military arm, in which Washington would have no voice. America's NATO ambassador, William H. Taft IV, told a recent meeting of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) here that "the (American) public won't understand replacing NATO with a new organization that performs the same role."
Another American diplomat added: "We can accept WEU as a vehicle for European identity. But we are not members. So we would not want to see NATO driven in the future by the WEU."
An American official in Brussels, who recently watched the breakdown of world trade talks, largely because of differences between the United States and Europe, said: "The problem with dealing with purely European organizations is that once they undergo the tough business of negotiating their own position among themselves, they are inflexible in making any compromises with us."
A European ambassador summed up the current status of the WEU this way: "The Americans, British and Dutch want a WEU with close ties to NATO and loose ties to the EC. The Italians, French and Spanish want a WEU with loose ties to NATO and close ties to the EC. The Germans are somewhere in between."
WEU Secretary General Willem van Eekelen of The Netherlands argues that whatever role his organization assumes, "NATO will remain indispensable for collective defense and deterrence."
The Americans point out that five of Europe's 14 NATO members--Denmark, Greece, Iceland, Norway and Turkey--are not in the WEU, making it questionable whether that organization alone would be the best European pillar of the Atlantic alliance.
John Roper, the British director of the new Institute for Security Studies in Paris, an offshoot of the WEU, told a recent IISS gathering: "We have to solve the NATO-WEU-EC equation. Certainly the WEU can be a bridge between the U.S. and the EC in security matters.
"In the past, Europe has been a net importer of security from the U.S. The Gulf conflict has shown that Europe will become a net exporter of security out of area. We have to determine how to do this and when it is appropriate."
Although NATO was not designed for out-of-area operations, it served positive purposes in the Gulf, according to military experts.
U.S. Gen. John R. Galvin, NATO's top military commander, observed recently that one reason for the allies' superb performance in the Gulf was the experience in "crisis management" among the NATO allies.
This included long experience in coordination, command structures, communication and tactics.
Numerous NATO exercises created a system of coordination, Galvin said, that served the United States, Britain and France well in the Gulf.
That view was seconded by the IISS's Col. Andrew Duncan, who said: "A lot of the command-and-control coordination we saw in the Gulf was originally worked out among NATO nations in land, sea and air exercises.
"As for the WEU, it would be terribly expensive to set up a smaller group duplicating NATO. So the WEU could never replace NATO unless it actually assumed the functions of NATO."