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"The purpose of NATO," former British Foreign Minister Denis Healy once observed, "is not to produce heaven on earth. It is to prevent hell on earth."

By that standard, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is an outstanding success. Acting as a Western barrier to Soviet expansion, the alliance has kept Europe free and peaceful for four decades.But now, as NATO leaders gather in Brussels early next week for a summit meeting marking the organization's 40th anniversary, some serious cracks are starting to appear in the Western alliance.

Impressed by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's drive for internal reforms in the Soviet Union and his series of dramatic proposals for reductions in both nuclear and conventional military forces, some NATO members are in effect ready to declare an end to the Cold War and conclude that NATO has outlived its usefulness.

At the point of the wedge dividing NATO is Gorbachev's call for negotiations on reducing the number of short-range nuclear weapons in Europe.

Favoring this call are not only West Germany, where NATO's stock of such weapons is deployed, but also Denmark, Norway, Spain, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.

Opposing it are the United States, Britain and France.

If West Germany and those aligned with it don't moderate their stance, the split in NATO could easily prompt Congress to pass legislation mandating the withdrawal of some American troops from Europe.

In any event, the opposition has the better case. Its position is simply that it's more prudent to get the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies to reduce conventional military forces to the same level as those of NATO before talking about eliminating an entire class of nuclear weapons. Even then, NATO would be wise to retain some nuclear deterrent to protect Europe from neighboring USSR's preponderance of manpower.

By sticking to this position, Washington seems to be wringing some concessions from the Soviet Union. Only this week Gorbachev made an impressive new offer to reduce its conventional military forces in Europe. Though this offer doesn't go quite as far as NATO has been seeking, the positions of the East and West on conventional arms reductions now seem close enough to be negotiable.

Though these developments seem promising, keep in mind that no Soviet forces have yet been withdrawn from Europe . . . that Soviet military spending increased 3 percentlast year while U.S. defense spending dropped 2 percent. . . and that Soviet tank production in the first quarter of this year rose to its highest level since the end of World War II, reaching an annual rate of over 3,500 compared to only 600 tanks being produced by the United States this year.

Keep in mind, too, that NATO and the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact have been conducting negotiations for 15 years on the reduction of conventional forces without getting anywhere. So it's much too soon to count on any concrete results from this week's offer by Gorbachev.

Today, NATO faces a situation radically different from the one that brought the alliance into existence 40 years ago. In some ways, the Soviet Union is more dangerous because its leadership is more subtle and sophisticated. By all means, the Free World must explore and exploit all reasonable opportunities to relax East-West tensions. But NATO must also make sure that its perception of the Soviet military threat does not change faster than the reality of that threat.

Consequently, the challenge facing NATO leaders in Brussels next week is not only to reconcile their differences but to renew their sense of purpose in new and invigorating ways.