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As defense ministers of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization start meeting in Sicily today, look for some potentially major history to be made.

That's because the ministers are expected to agree to slash NATO's nuclear stockpile of about 3,500 artillery shells, short-range missiles and gravity bombs to well under 1,000. It would be the largest reduction in nuclear warheads in Europe since the alliance began deploying the weapons in the early 1950s.Though the calculated gamble involved in this step is well worth taking, it involves greater risks than initially meet the eye. The political risks could be more serious and far-reaching than the military ones.

Militarily, the NATO de-escalation is simply a logical extension of President Bush's recent decision to destroy all U.S. ground-based nuclear artillery and short-range missiles throughout the world.

Like both the Bush initiative and an earlier NATO decision to reduce military manpower, the alliance can wait a few years before it starts implementing the new cutbacks to make sure the Soviet Union reciprocates, then back off if Moscow fails to match its promises with deeds.

Even if NATO did not retain the deterrent force represented by the nearly 1,000 nuclear weapons it plans to keep after the promised cutback, the alliance could in an emergency count on support from ballistic missiles aboard American submarines.

Moreover, with less of its money and manpower tied up in military programs, the Western alliance can divert more resources to building its members' economies.

Besides, now that the communist bloc has turned from an aggressive monolith into a loose confederation preoccupied with its internal problems, it's time for NATO to show it can be flexible in response to changing world conditions.

But there are sharp limits to how much those conditions have changed. Though the nature of the rivalry may have changed, the world is still far from being safe from international covetousness and hostility. Moreover, the security of the United States is still linked to the peace and freedom of Europe. That means there is still no substitute for collective security based on consultation and cooperative decisionmaking.

These persistent facts of international life, however, seem to have been lost on some NATO members. In particular, France has long taken an independent course while Germany more recently has started making new diplomatic arrangements with Moscow apart from the wishes of its NATO partners.

The danger is that as NATO reduces its military muscle, the arm of the alliance that involves political consultation and cooperation could atrophy. Now that the external pressures on NATO have abated, the alliance must become increasingly alert to the possibility of an erosion of unity and willpower from within.