THE NATO heads of government have been retooling selected aspects of the Alliance for contemporary service as a vehicle of peace. A new declaration of peaceful intent is being prepared. Mikhail Gorbachev has been invited to address the organization. The "doctrine" guiding employment of tactical nuclear weapons is under review. A procedure for limiting the size of German forces in a reunited Germany has been proposed and impetus given to the arms reduction talks. The 35-nation Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe is being broken in for political duty.

These are worthy projects, if of different weights. They should contribute to their first purpose, which is to address the anxieties the Soviets say they have about seeing a reunited Germany be a member of NATO. This in turn is the key to the Soviets yielding up the formal rights in Germany that they retain as one of the victorious occupying powers of World War II and allowing German reunification to proceed. The process has been moving ahead rapidly and, given the immense dimensions and the potentially destabilizing nature of the change underway, remarkably smoothly. The openness of consultations within the West and between East and West has made this so, along with the general readiness to consider the interests and sensibilities of the other parties. American leadership has done its part.

All this is to say that NATO is showing once again it is the preeminent international institution. It is not merely the agency of American influence in Europe, though it indubitably is that. For all of its earlier chronic "disarray" and its current tugs and pulls, it is demonstrably the agency of a collective Western will. There is talk to the effect that with the passing of the Cold War NATO is obsolete and in need of replacement. But NATO has always been something more than a military alliance that was formed to answer a Soviet threat. It has been in the first instance a political alliance bringing together and holding together the Western democracies. The easing of the Cold War certainly diminishes (without ending) the military threat and compels substantial military adjustments -- these will be especially demanding once reunification becomes a political fact in the all-German elections coming next December. But this does not at all diminish the fundamental idea of voluntary consultative democratic solidarity and in fact may enhance it.

The contrast could not be sharper: The Warsaw Pact is a Kremlin-imposed alliance that in the absence of Soviet force is disintegrating if it is not already gone. NATO is a shared enterprise that continues to be the vessel of Western consent and that, in the ultimate tribute, some nations of the former Soviet bloc are now asking to join. NATO a shell? You could say it's never been more alive.