The United States today welcomed a European Union plan to build a 60,000-member rapid reaction military force, but warned that it must not evolve in a way that undermines NATO or neglects the security interests of those allies not taking part in the force.

At a meeting here, NATO foreign ministers said the decision by the 15 European Union leaders last weekend to set up such a force by 2003 could help Europe strengthen its armed forces and assume greater responsibility for its own defense.

But the plan has raised doubts among some NATO members about whether it could ultimately weaken the transatlantic alliance or divide it between the 11 EU countries that would provide troops for the force and the United States, Canada and six European states that belong to NATO but are not members of the EU.

Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, who represented Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright at the NATO meeting, said the European plan represents "several steps in the right direction." He emphasized that the United States has often urged its allies to step up defense spending and claimed that any measures that enhance Europe's ability to care for its own security needs would be backed by Washington.

"There should be no confusion about America's position on the need for a stronger Europe," Talbott said. "We are not against; we are not ambivalent; we are not anxious; we are for it. We want to see a Europe that can act effectively through the alliance, or, if NATO is not engaged, on its own."

But Talbott also gave a clear warning that the EU must be careful not to jeopardize the interests of Turkey, Norway, Iceland, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic--NATO members that could find themselves dragged into a future European conflict even though they might not have a voice in EU decisions on the need for military action. Allies "who, unlike us, live on this side of the Atlantic," Talbott said, "deserve special status in the EU's security and defense deliberations" because their pledges to help fellow NATO states when attacked could easily embroil them in a conflict not of their making.

The delicate attempt to reconcile the EU's ambitions to create a common defense policy with NATO's role as the continent's preeminent military organization has emerged as one of the bigger challenges facing the United States and its European allies. "Europeans have learned a very important lesson from the Kosovo air campaign: that the military imbalance with the United States must be urgently redressed," said NATO Secretary General George Robertson of Britain. "We Europeans have finally realized that we need to do more in our self-interest and to strengthen and reinvigorate the alliance."

Robertson observed that Europe has more than 2 million men and women in military service but is hard-pressed to deploy and maintain 40,000 peacekeeping troops in Kosovo. During the NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia last spring, American aircraft flew an overwhelming majority of bombing and reconnaissance missions.

The first test of an independent European military force could come next year, when several governments have proposed that a European corps consisting of French, German, Spanish and Belgian troops take a leading role in Kosovo operations. NATO's supreme commander, U.S. Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, said he plans to make a recommendation on the matter after reviewing whether the Europeans can muster sufficient troops.