LONDON -- The latest buzz-phrase in NATO these days is "out of area."
The Persian Gulf crisis has made it painfully clear how little the powerful military alliance can do if trouble erupts beyond its mandated defense area of Europe and North America.
This has reinforced concerns about the organization's fundamental role now that the Communist threat from the East has all but evaporated.
The enemy now is more likely to be farther afield, or, in NATO jargon, "out of area." How should the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, constructed to contain Communist expansion, react to new worldwide threats to its members' security?
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, always one of the most hawkish alliance leaders, pinpointed the potential problem three months ago, long before Iraqi President Saddam Hussein overran Kuwait and threatened major oil supplies from the Middle East.
She told NATO foreign ministers at a June meeting in the Scottish golfing center of Turnberry: "There is no guarantee that threats to our security will stop at some imaginary line across the mid-Atlantic. It is not long since some of us had to go to the Arabian Gulf to keep oil supplies flowing" during the Iran-Iraq war.
"We shall become very heavily dependent on Middle Eastern oil once again in the next century. With the spread of sophisticated weapons and military technology to areas like the Middle East, potential threats to NATO territory may originate more from outside Europe.
"Against that background, it would be only prudent for NATO countries to retain a capacity to carry out multiple roles with more flexible and versatile forces."
With the gulf again in full crisis and oil markets in disarray to prove her point, she recalled her Turnberry speech to European conservative leaders last week in Helsinki, Finland, and said: "I recall that I was criticized by some at the time for being so intemperate as to suggest that NATO should get involved in out-of-area problems.
"But events since then have driven home the lesson: Europe's security is vitally affected by events outside the NATO area."
The problem is that the 1949 NATO treaty puts strict geographical limits on joint action.
Article 6 of the treaty states: "An armed attack on one or more of the parties is deemed to include anarmed attack on the territory of any of the parties in Europe or North America, ... on the occupation forces of any party in Europe, on the islands under the jurisdiction of any party in the North Atlantic area north of the Tropic of Cancer or on the vessels or aircraft in this area of any of the parties."
Thus, if Iraq launched a strike against U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia, NATO would be powerless to react.
Only if Turkey, NATO's easternmost member and a neighbor of Iraq, were attacked could NATO respond as a unified military command.
"If Saddam keeps his nose clean and doesn't push Turkey around, we have nothing to do," one NATO official said.
There is no restraint on NATO members' acting unilaterally. Many NATO members have committed forces to the U.S.-led multinational force. They can communicate through NATO, share intelligence and coordinate their contributions. But they cannot operate under NATO command or the NATO flag.
In seeking to formulate a new post-Cold War role for the alliance, officials of NATO are reviewing all its policies, from flexible response to forward defense.
A fundamental change to enable joint action beyond the current limits of Europe and North America would require redrafting the original treaty. Unanimity would be needed from the 16 members. Officials deem this to be unlikely, particularly because of French misgivings over any enhanced NATO role.
The officials said there was some interest in "extending" NATO's role, but the problem was how to do it without rewriting the treaty.
The likeliest approach appears to be increasing cooperation and consultation, using NATO as an information exchange rather than a command structure. Cooperation need not be limited to military affairs but could confront such global challenges as the environment and international aid.
NATO Secretary-General Manfred Woerner has put it this way: "The Europeans and Canadians do not have the same kind of superpower responsibilities as the United States, but they do have a global role.
"Whether it is providing large amounts of aid to the Third World, thwarting Libyan aggression in Chad, patrolling the gulf, sending forces to the Sinai to keep the Camp David peace or monitoring the cease-fire between Iran and Iraq, each of your allies is playing a meaningful role. By intensifying consultations among allies, we should be able correspondingly to increase their cooperation on out-of-area issues."