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A few weeks before a NATO summit to celebrate 40 years of unity, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has erupted in what diplomats admit is the worst crisis in the organization's history.

At issue is a Soviet proposal to add short-range nuclear weapons to the arms control list.The main antagonists within NATO are the United States and West Germany. Washington opposes the Moscow proposal while Bonn supports it. Lined up on the American side are Britain and France. Inclined toward the West German view are Denmark, Norway, Spain, and to a lesser degree Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg.

As long as Russia and its Warsaw Pact allies maintain conventional forces vastly superior to those of NATO, the denuclearization of Western Europe would be sheer folly.

But try telling that to West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who is fighting for his political life. His party has suffered a series of election setbacks, with polls showing West German voters believe it a mistake to modernize weapons in light of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's voluntary arms reductions and new negotiations on reducing NATO and Warsaw Pact conventional arms levels.

Bonn's stance reflects bad eyesight as well as short memories.

Can't the West Germans and their supporters see that in some places in Europe Soviet forces outnumber local defenders by as much as 30 to one?

Don't those pressing for rapid nuclear disarmament realize that if they get what they want, the only way to redress the balance would be with a sharp buildup of western conventional forces?

Don't the West Germans know that Gorbachev wouldn't be as amenable as he now seems to be if the United States hadn't insisted on sending nuclear missiles to Europe over the Kremlin's pointed and threatening objections?

Have they forgotten that "glasnost" could be about as short-lived as the freedom movements of 1956 in Hungary, 1968 in Czechoslovakia, and 1980-81 in Poland before the Soviets crushed them?

For that matter, don't the West Germans know what side their bread is buttered on? Not only does Bonn share NATO's commitment to parliamentary democracy and capitalism, but also has strong economic ties to the West. How long does Bonn think those trade ties will last if West Germany becomes known as an unreliable NATO partner? Or does Bonn seriously think that Russia, with its well-known inability to adequately provide for its own people, could become a more desirable trading partner?

The American position is simply to get the Warsaw Pact to cut itself down to the same level of conventional forces as NATO - and then think about eliminating entire classes of nuclear weapons. By trying to put the cart before the horse, West Germany is threatening the unity of a western alliance that has helped keep Western Europe at peace for four decades. Bonn clearly needs to rethink its position.