Why is President Carter's reaction so cautious to the Moscow "opening" West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt brought back last week? Why was there such a flap in the first place about Mr. Schmidt's going to Moscow for talks with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev?
These questions illustrate the unresolved dilemma of how to handle the multipolar power relationships that have replaced the much simpler old-fashioned bipolar relationship between Washington and Moscow of a decade or more ago.
It is as if a complicated Calder mobile had replaced the straightforward balance represented by a traditional pair of scales -- a mobile that can be dangerously pulled out of balance or shape by interference with any one part of it.
For President Carter and the US, the most important part of the mobile is still the global superpower relationship between Washington and Moscow. In Washington, that is what gets priority.
For Chancellor Schmidt, there are two other parts of the mobile that demand and get more attention in Bonn than they do in Washington: These are the future of divided Germany itself (summed up in the word "Ostpolitik") and the security of Europe as Europe (summed up in the word "detente").
Mr. Schmidt feels that he needs to take out insurance against the possibility that the US may be tempted to overlook strictly West German and European interests in pursuit of its global interest -- which demand (in American eyes) countering apparent Soviet determination to achieve world hegemony.
Mr. Carter feels that the insurance he needs is against a West German temptation to put a more narrowly perceived West German or European interest ahead of the concern in Washington -- which the US feels should be shared by the entire Western alliance -- about the overall balance between the US and the Soviet Union. This is seen by many to be tilting in Moscow's favor.
This is what lay behind the strain in relationships between Mr. Carter and Mr. Schmidt over the latter's Moscow visit -- and explains Carter's guarded response to what Schmidt apparently achieved during that visit. To use a phrase coined by the London weekly Economist, Mr. Carter wants to be sure that what Mr. Brezhnev handed Mr. Schmidt was not "booby-trapped."
There are more pieces in the multifaceted power mobile of today than the US, the USSR, Germany and Europe. First there is China. But to that must be added the third world and the openings offered there for both Soviet/Cuban (Angola, Ethiopia, South Yemen) and US (Egypt, Kenya, Oman) exploitation. Complicating the interrelationship of all these pieces is the energy crisis, with the US and its industrialized allies (ironically including very much West Germany) so dependent on third-world oil in the Gulf -- and the Soviet Union eying that same oil as a possible source for itself whenever it becomes a net importer instead of a net exporter of petroleum and petroleum products.
While the implications of the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan were the dominant theme of President Carter's recent European travels, they do not weigh as heavily on the West German chancellor. Mr. Schmidt -- and most Germans in both parts of their divided land -- recognize that in any war in Europe in which the US refrained from engaging its US-based intercontinental strategic missiles (presumably to spare US cities from Soviet counterattack), frontline Germany would bear the brunt of the fallout and devastation from US tactical nuclear weapons and Soviet-based "Eurostrategic" nuclear weapons.
Other Europeans are sensitive to this German preoccupation, because part of the rest of Western Europe would be in the front line too. Against this background should be seen both French President Giscard d'Estaing's apparently self-defensive development of a neutron bomb and hesitation on the part of the Netherlands and Blegium about the stationing in the 1980s of the new-generation, US-produced long-range Pershing II and cruise missiles on their territory.
NATO agreed last December that a total of 572 of these missiles would be stationed in the European theather as soon as they became available, not likely before 1983. On the European mainland, West Germany is to accept the biggest number (112).
In agreeing to this, indeed advocating it, Mr. Schmidt's aim was two-fold: First, to give NATO added leverage in any eventual negotiations with Moscow for a cut-back in or freeze on European-theater-only long-range nuclear weapons -- which he earnestly wants; and second, to prevent what has been called the "decoupling" of US-based strategic nuclear weapons from merely Eurostrategic nuclear weapons.
The Soviet response to the December decision of NATO seemed at the time unequivocal: no talks on theater-based nuclear weapons until NATO revoked its plan to install the Pershing II's. From the Soviet point of view, of course, the plan increased the nuclear threat to the USSR: for the first time there would be land-based nuclear missiles capable of reaching targets inside the Soviet Union. It is therefore understandable that Soviet President Brezhnev should have wanted to delay or prevent the arrival of the missiles in Europe. But NATO has stuck to its decision.
Having failed with his initial unequivocal "no" to control talks unless NATO first reversed itself on the missiles, Mr. Brezhnev has now told Mr. Schmidt talks can take place without such a NATO about-face. But there are some other conditions in the fine print. Mr. Brezhnev apparently said US aircraftborne nuclear weapons must be included in limitation talks (not before demanded) and that no control agreement could become effective until the US Senate has ratified the SALT II agreement (now on ice, on US initiative).
The question for the US now: Is this indeed a booby-trap? Is Mr. Brezhnev genuinely interested in limiting Eurostrategic weapons on both sides in a way lessening the current Soviet advantage? Or is he playing for time simply to encourage West European doubts about Pershing II's and cruise missiles while he goes on escalating the threat to Western Europe from his own SS-20s?