The most radical military reorganization of NATO in its 42-year history is premised on the need to maintain a U.S. commitment to the defense of Europe while permitting drastic force reductions dictated by the end of the Cold War and budgetary constraints. It also seeks to reconcile the undoubted power of a united Germany with the understandable concerns of Germany's neighbors and, indeed, its own people.
This translates into an emphasis on multi-national forces capable of immediate or rapid reaction to crises anywhere in the European area, plus main-force units much reduced from present size that will have the traditional mission of resisting a Soviet nuclear or conventional attack. Overall NATO land, air and sea contingents, now numbering 2.8 million, will be reduced an estimated 22 percent. The 320,000 U.S. troops assigned to the alliance will drop below the 200,000-mark.
While NATO has long operated under a unified command structure, its individual military units have been strictly national. This will change. Many British, German, Belgian and Dutch troops will be assigned to multinational units as part of the trend toward a united Europe. Americans will be counted upon to provide air support for these units, plus fast backup from U.S. forces based stateside.
These are the major changes decreed by NATO defense ministers in response to the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, the withdrawal of huge numbers of Soviet troops from central and eastern Europe and the unification of Germany. Although many details have yet to be ratified by heads of government, and considerable differences with France have yet to be accommodated, the general direction of the alliance seems to have been set.
Unsettled, however, is NATO's role, if any, outside the European confines set in the alliance charter. The alliance, as such, proved incapable of operating "out of area" during the Persian Gulf war. Restrictions in the German constitution, unless amended, will continue to inhibit actions beyond the European theater. Thus, much hinges on the outcome of a fierce internal German political battle.
The more immediate task is to secure a continuing U.S. presence in a Europe less menaced by Soviet attack and more determined to follow a course often at odds with U.S. political, financial and trade interests.
NATO defense ministers did their part by taking issue with proposals to assign considerable European defense roles to the European Community or the West European Union, which do not include U.S. membership, or the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, a grouping that includes the Soviet Union as well as the United States. Instead, they described NATO, the link between North America and Europe, as the "essential forum" for Western security. As such, it should be maintained, modernized and restructured to make sure the "new world order" does not become more disorderly than need be.