BUDAPEST — Budapest.--Who needs NATO now and what for? Is it merely an anachronism -- this organization created more than 40 years ago to protect Western European democracies from a Warsaw Pact attack across the center of Europe? Now, the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union itself have disbanded. Should NATO follow suit? What useful purpose do NATO troops serve in a prosperous, united Western Europe committed to organizing its own defense? Is it time, finally, for the Yankees to go home?
The issue was not put quite this bluntly at the high-level, unofficial NATO working-group meeting in Budapest last week. But it was the question that underlay the discussions of past and present military and civilian officials who gathered to talk about the security of the Western world in rooms where the Warsaw Pact formerly met.
It was not the first NATO working group with representatives of former Warsaw Pact countries present. But it was the first meeting at which so many former Soviet-bloc countries were represented, and at such a high level. And it was the first time the meeting was held in a former Soviet-bloc country, and the first time Russian and Georgian representatives attended, although the Baltic states had been present at a previous conference.
It was also the first NATO working-group meeting since ratification of the Maastricht Treaty, which gives the European Community a security dimension. And it was the first meeting since war had come again to Europe.
No one called for withdrawal of American troops from Europe, but the emphasis on strictly European forces and an exclusively ''European pillar'' within NATO raised basic questions about Western Europe's intentions. It is not at all clear how a ''European pillar'' could be integrated with a ''North American pillar.'' But that is perhaps the point. A good number concluded that the two ''pillars'' would effectively and intentionally end an integrated trans-Atlantic alliance.
And why not? With its own European-theater missile defense, its own tactical early-warning system and its own intelligence facilities, the Western European Union would not really need the old NATO alliance.
Not all Western Europeans were so negative about NATO, but none were as positive as the new democracies of Eastern Europe. Long experience under Soviet domination has left them with an abiding concern about security and a powerful respect for American military strength as well as a special appreciation of NATO as a community of shared values that could reinforce the democratic institutions of Eastern Europe.
Even without the Soviet Union, the world seems to them filled with risks as well as possibilities. Therefore, while the Western European Union proposed to diminish NATO, Eastern Europeans expressed a desire to join it. WEU partisans were predictably unenthusiastic. Better, they suggested, that Eastern European democracies become part of the European Community and, in due time, of the WEU -- when the EC decides they are ''ready.''
Most Americans saw no reason the new democracies should not join NATO -- while making clear, of course, that an alliance is not being formed against Russia.
All of this talk of armies and alliances took little note of the actual war raging 200 miles away in Bosnia. Stopping that war is the first Western failure since the end of the Cold War -- the first failure of the EC, the CSCE (Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe), the WEU, NATO, the United Nations -- though no one put it quite that way. Admitting that failure would have required admitting, too, that even the best organizations and the most elaborate interlocking security systems are worth little without the leadership and political will so manifestly lacking in the killing fields of Bosnia.
Jeane Kirkpatrick writes a syndicated column.