America's NATO allies have given their support to a U.S. plan that would see the alliance create a 20,000 man multinational strike force to deal with terrorists and renegade states. NATO defense ministers, meeting in Warsaw, are discussing how to make the alliance more relevant in facing 21st century security problems.

NATO was created to face down the Soviet challenge to Western Europe during the Cold War. Since the Soviet Union fell apart, it has engaged in peacekeeping and conflict resolution in the Balkans. But it needs a new focus, and the alliance's secretary general, George Robertson, says it should be ready to deal with what he described as criminal states armed with weapons of mass destruction.

Mr. Robertson did not specifically mention Iraq, but he issued a call to smash threats originating from such states when deterrence fails. That was music to the ears of the United States, which has been pressing its often-reluctant allies to support action against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

To strengthen NATO's capability to act against the new security challenges, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called upon the alliance to create a strike force of up to 20,000 troops that would conduct military operations anywhere in the world. According to the proposal, a core of 5,000 troops could be deployed in 7-30 days.

Before departing Washington on Sunday, Mr. Rumsfeld said his proposal is based on a similar plan that would make the U.S. military able to respond more quickly to new types of security problems.

"My proposal is really no different than the kind of thing we have been doing here in the United States," said the U.S. official. "Suggesting that one of the transformational things NATO could do would be to develop a quick reaction force that would be able to respond to a problem in a matter of days, rather than weeks or months, and to have the kind of agility to deal with the types of problems that exist today."

In Warsaw, Mr. Rumsfeld told his colleagues that, if NATO does not create such a force, then the alliance would become irrelevant.

A NATO official said the allies listened intently to Mr. Rumsfeld's presentation. He says the 18 other countries welcomed the plan and promised to consider it, but some insisted it not undermine the European Union's own rapid reaction force that is due to become operational next year. The NATO strike force would take at least two years to build if the Rumsfeld plan is adopted at an alliance summit in Prague later this year.

The NATO official says that, while the NATO strike force would be designed to fight wars in far-flung places, the EU force's emphasis would be on peacekeeping and conflict prevention in areas near Europe.