The British prime minister, disappointed by the German chancellor's indifference to proper standards of debate, urged him to try harder to present "well-marshaled arguments." Although there are few photographs of Hitler smiling (one is of him examining a model of the first Volkswagen), surely he smiled broadly about Neville Chamberlain's suggestion. But no broader than Leonid Brezhnev must be smiling about the West's reaction to events in Poland.

The efficiency of Moscow's move, through its friends in Warsaw, is not just in its Hitlerian dispatch. (He, too, worked on weekends, in occupying the Rhineland and the Anschluss.) With a single strike, Moscow has secured the northern flank of the Warsaw Pact and has set NATO nations to doing the one thing they do in unison: making noises like the crackling of empty, dried corn husks.

The London Times' report of Britain's declaration of war in 1914 began: "Back in 1870 ..." A report on today's condition of NATO might begin: "Back in 1945 . . ." or "Back in 1961 . . ." or "Back in 1975 . . ."

Some people, flinching from the facts about today's moral abdication, will argue that the military decisions that led to the Yalta agreement in 1945 made "understandable," even "inevitable," NATO's passive acceptance of the Berlin Wall in 1961. And they will argue that the acceptance made redundant the ratification at Helsinki in 1975 of Soviet hegemony over Eastern Europe. But such argument is a symptom of the degeneration of political will that is the real explanation for the West's supine reaction to events in Poland. NATO nations seem incapable of any common theme other than approbation for Russia's "non-involvement," a patent fiction.

What is outrageous is the absence of outrage. The protests are perfunctory to the point of politeness. Imagine what would be the reactions of NATO governments if the Greek or Spanish military imposed martial law. Remember the outrage when Chile's Salvador Allende was overthrown in 1973? Some governments broke diplomatic relations with Chile before they knew who had done what, or why.

Given the primacy of commercial values in the societies that achieved prosperity behind NATO's shield when it really was a shield, it is hard to imagine what "grave consequences" the NATO nations are threatening in the event that Soviet involvement in Poland becomes so conspicuous that it cannot be obligingly denied in the West.

NATO governments could inflict severe economic punishment on Poland's tormentors and could, by so doing, summon their citizens to a renewed seriousness about the struggle they are in. But the Russians know from the Reagan administration's words and deeds how much the administration dislikes grain embargoes and other interferences with free trade. And this year there are no Olympics not to go to.

With West Germany, the heart of NATO, positioning itself as an intermediary between the alliance and its adversary, what remains of the alliance? Soviet troubles--in Poland, Afghanistan and domestically--have given rise in the West to a cottage industry in the wishful-thinking business, a cottage industry producing predictions that the Soviet empire will soon crumble like stale Stilton cheese. But what shows signs of crumbling is the alliance that was called into existence to contain the Soviet empire.

Henry Kissinger notes that many NATO nations seem to believe that their identity should be measured by their diplomatic distance from America. Increasingly, the leaders and publics of Europe and America lack the emotional attachment to NATO that once derived from personal involvement in the creative response to danger that produced the alliance. NATO nations increasingly gauge the success of their diplomacy by their relations with Russia, rather than with members of the alliance. And, Kissinger says, negotiations have come to be considered psychiatric exercises for establishing an atmosphere of good will.

The end of U.S. strategic nuclear superiority has meant the end of the ability to use threats of general war to enforce regional security. Europe increasingly rejects the concept of nuclear war for regional defense and refuses to invest sufficiently in conventional forces to make any other war-fighting plan credible. As Kissinger says, if peace is the sole goal of NATO nations, the alliance lacks the political coherence that is a prerequisite for its continuation, and the future belongs to the power that is prepared to threaten war.

NATO is in imminent danger of becoming as ornamental as most modern monarchs. It has been said that modern monarchs are to life what illustrations are to books. But illustrations are pleasant luxuries and do no harm, which cannot be said of an alliance that perpetuates delusions of security.