At a crucial two-day meeting here that ended Wednesday, defense ministers of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization initiated steps to both fundamentally and permanently change the nature of the Western alliance in light of the new order emerging in Europe.
The officials ordered a sweeping review of alliance military strategy, moving toward reconstituting NATO military forces as multinational units, sharply curtailed training and exercises and a relaxed alert status of front-line units.
They earlier agreed to cancel modernization of ground-based nuclear weapons and endorsed new talks with the Soviet Union to deeply reduce or eliminate such weapons on the Continent.
In sum, said Secretary General Manfred Woerner, "we are in the process of reshaping our alliance--its policy and its strategy."
Added Woerner, the former West German defense minister: "We are at the beginning of a new era. . . . This spring the alliance will be examining every aspect of its policy and setting out its framework for the future."
NATO, which historically has moved at a glacial pace, is undergoing a period of unprecedented introspection in hopes of finding a new rationale for its existence.
As NATO's military function becomes increasingly irrelevant in the face of a virtually defunct Warsaw Pact and a declining Soviet military threat, the 16-nation Western alliance is in search of what U.S. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney calls "a political dimension to our military arrangements."
One of the most immediate and visible effects of the new thinking at NATO is its decision to lower its state of military readiness.
For decades, NATO has maintained large and lethal forces arrayed along West Germany's borders with East Germany and Czechoslovakia. Jeeps mounted with machine guns patrolled the border constantly and air interceptor crews stationed a few miles from the East-West frontier were on 24-hour "strip alert," ready to scramble in five minutes.
Until last year, NATO assumed it would have no more than two weeks' notice of a Soviet attack and deployed its forces in anticipation of a lightning strike against Western Europe. But with the warning time of an attack now estimated in months rather than days, alliance planners have decided it is safe to "stand down" the bulk of NATO forces, officials said.
"NATO no longer views itself as on front-line alert and can be a little more relaxed," a senior NATO diplomat said in an interview. The resulting actions will save the alliance "hundreds of millions of dollars a year" in operating costs, he said.
NATO will adopt a number of measures reflecting the more relaxed posture on July 1, U.S. officials attending the session said. They declined to specify the actions, but one official said military planners are looking at such questions as, "How soon does this helicopter squadron have to be ready to go operational? Is it a period of hours or is it a couple of days?"
The United States is likely to be pulling thousands of troops out of Europe as a result of arms talks now under way with the Soviets, and European members of NATO are considering moving large numbers of soldiers into reserve units rather than maintaining expensive active-duty divisions.
Training exercises involving large numbers of troops and armored vehicles are being canceled or drastically scaled back in another reflection of the eased tensions. The communique issued by the defense ministers Wednesday noted that the reductions in training "will reduce the impact on the public, will benefit the quality of life and protect the environment"--particularly in West Germany, where NATO exercises are viewed by a growing sector of the populace as increasingly offensive and irrelevant.
In another move designed in part to make NATO membership more palatable to the soon-to-be-united Germany, the alliance is preparing to adopt multinational troop units to replace the current system of single-nation corps.
The idea is to integrate German military units into the alliance structure after 40 years of second-class status.
NATO will also undertake, for the first time in 25 years, a radical reassessment of its military strategy. Since 1967, NATO doctrine has been based on the concepts of "forward defense" and "flexible response"--stationing large troop concentrations on the borders with the Warsaw Pact nations and reserving the right to use nuclear weapons in response to a non-nuclear attack on NATO.
Those doctrines will likely give way to a new defense strategy at the end of the review, which may take as long as two years, NATO officials said. The notion of forward defense clearly will yield, NATO planners said, because it is unclear today where the West ends and the Soviet domain begins. And while the defense ministers reaffirmed the alliance's willingness to deploy and, if necessary, use nuclear weapons, such weapons surely will be the subject of intense debate, officials said.
What is not negotiable, at least from the American point of view, are six basic elements of alliance strategy, said one senior U.S. official accompanying Cheney.
These are: A "significant" presence of U.S. troops in Europe; full German membership in NATO; defense of all NATO territory against potential attack; nuclear weapons as part of the alliance deterrent; full participation of NATO members in the military command structure and a reaffirmation that an attack on one NATO member will bring retaliation by the whole alliance.
But even if the other NATO members accept the U.S. dictates, there remains tremendous room for a radical restructuring of the 40-year-old Western pact.