DESPITE THE recent threats to the unity of the NATO alliance, the summit meeting of NATO leaders in Brussels has concluded with a healing compromise, as well as a new forthright arms proposal that promises to reduce conventional arms in Europe and advance the cause of peace.
The arms proposals, introduced by President Bush and endorsed by the 15 other NATO allies, provide for cuts in force levels by both sides in the categories of troops, tanks, aircraft and other conventional weapons. For the first time in three decades, there would be a modest cutback in the number of American troops stationed in Europe.
The Bush plan is a suitable response to the recent arms proposals made by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. The result is that both sides are now agreed on the principle of parity for NATO and Warsaw Pact forces, and both sides are within shouting distance on the question of force levels in the various categories.
Because of the great current superiority of Warsaw Pact forces, the proposals made by both sides envision far greater cutbacks by the Warsaw Pact than by NATO. Bush proposes that American and Soviet forces be reduced to 275,000 on each side. This would mean a reduction of some 350,000 Soviet troops and only 30,000 American troops.
The withdrawal of American troops from Europe might, in a different situation, be seen as casting doubt on the U.S. commitment to the defense of Europe, but in the context of mutual force reductions, the move is a positive one.
The 275,000 American troops would still constitute a massive commitment, and the modest reduction would lead to the departure of hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops.
Under the NATO proposals, there would be similar large Warsaw Pact reductions in other categories in order to achieve parity. Warsaw Pact tanks, for example, would drop from 57,000 to 20,000, while NATO tanks would be reduced by only about 2,000 to reach the 20,000 level.
These sizable reductions in forces would help to reduce tensions in Europe and advance the goal cited by Bush to "finally free Europe from the . . . shadow of Soviet military power."
The issue that had threatened to create a rift in NATO -- whether to negotiate on reducing short-range, battlefield nuclear weapons -- was resolved by linking the issue, as it should be, to progress in the conventional arms talks. NATO should not negotiate away any more nuclear weapons until the Warsaw Pact's superiority in conventional weapons is reduced or eliminated.
West Germany, where most of the short-range weapons are based and where a nuclear war would be fought, wants to eliminate these weapons, but West German leaders appeared happy with the compromise formula that negotiations would not start until agreement had been reached on conventional arms. Even then, only a partial reduction will be sought.
The United States and West Germany have also differed on the issue of whether the Lance nuclear missile should be modernized. The summit leaders agreed to delay a vote on this issue until 1992, which would be after the West German parliamentary elections.
The fast-moving events in the field of conventional armaments come in striking contrast to the stagnation that marked the conventional negotiations in Vienna over the previous 15 years. Bush expressed the hope that a new pact could be concluded within six months or a year, although this may be overly optimistic in view of the complexity of the problems and the addition of two new categories -- troops and aircraft -- by the NATO side.
There has been give and take on both sides, however, and the atmosphere is good. The summit leaders made reference to the changes made by Gorbachev, saying that "the possibilities for fruitful dialogue have significantly improved in recent years."
Bush, in this his first trip to Europe as president, has played an important leadership role, both in preserving NATO's unity and in offering imaginative proposals for reducing armaments in Europe.
He has also expressed interest in a summit meeting with Gorbachev before the end of the year "if there was something constructive to come out of such a meeting." That could well be decided by the progress in the negotiations now under way.