Rome — US-West German and therefore US-West European relations are possibly the best they have been since Gerald Ford was President. This outcome defies both conventional wisdom and political logic. And it could be overturned if right-wing ideologues in the Reagan administration manage to gain ascendancy over the foreign affairs pragmatists.
For now, however, an unaccustomed American-European cooperation prevails. The power jostling within an American administration that initially seemed far to the right of Western Europe has paradoxically led to more real American-European consultation, it could be argued, than at any time in the postwar period. Significantly, the consultation now takes place as US policy is being formulated, not afterward.
The comprehensive allied policy statement that is to be issued at the end of the May 4-5 NATO foreign ministers' meeting in Rome is evidence of this new coordination.
In one sense the process began even before the US election. This time around , West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt -- who during the 1976 campaign offended Jimmy Carter by expressing his preference for his old friend Ford -- kept his mouth firmly shut. And the Reagan team, trumpeting its difference from the Carter administration on all counts, seized on the bad Carter-European relations to declare that Reagan would do better.
On the face of it, this seemed an unlikely claim. Reagan was campaigning on a hardline platform and Carter's main complaint about the Europeans after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was precisely that they were too soft on the Russians.
Nonetheless, the announced intention to improve relations helped the atmospherics after Reagan's election. And Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr.'s Senate confirmation-hearing testimony praising the defense efforts of the West Germans -- following Carter administration hectoring about inadequate German military spending -- put a special glow on US-German contacts.
Like its predecessor, the Reagan administration still wanted West Germany to spend more on defense. But the tone of the asking was, for the most part, more cooperative and less accusatory. The allies began thinking through common priorities -- and the US let the priorities themselves pressure the Europeans.
Haig -- who as NATO commander had been known to twist Bonn's arm on defense --had his own reasons for lauding West German and European relations once he became secretary of state. Europe was his personal forte. He had cultivated European leaders (and they him). Europe was a strong card to play in the crucial intramural power plays of the administration's opening months.
The State Department's professional diplomats and the Western European governments were more than willing to go along with this approach. They feared that a return to righteous cold-war diatribes (as presaged by President Reagan's press conference charge that the Russians would "commit any crime, lie" and "cheat" and National Security Council staffer Richard Pipes' forecast of inevitable war if the Soviet Union didn't change its system) would be disastrous for the United States position in a complex world.
They therefore drew a sharp distinction between American rhetoric and American policy; they ignored the former, and set about trying to influence the latter. With their every pilgrimage to Washington, Italian, British, French, and West German officials worked in parallel with Haig and the State Department in trying to get across their views to hard-line Reagan newcomers.
The US Embassy in Bonn, for instance, bombarded the new American secretaries, undersecretaries, and aides in Washington with briefing papers prior to visits by the West German ministers of economics, defense, and foreign affairs. The West German visitors themselves stressed that unless Washington opened arms-control talks soon, Moscow would pose as the champion of peace in Europe -- and growing pacifist sentiment would then surely block deployment of planned new NATO nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile -- in retrospective alarm over the allies' post-Afghan disarray -- the French and West Germans stopped wagging their fingers at Washington. For domestic reasons (a May election, traditional French sympathies with the now Soviet-beleaguered Poles, possibly also embarrassment over his rose-tinted view of Moscow after the invasion of Afghanistan) President Valery Giscard d'Estaing ended his flirtation with the Russians.
For their part, West German leaders used every conceivable occasion to pledge loyalty to Washington, Bonn leaped to reject Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev's February moratorium proposal on European nuclear weapons as fast as Washington did. And Chancellor Schmidt echoed the Americans with an uncharacteristic domestic condemnation of pacifists in West German churches.
Not all of the Reagan team were persuaded. Early on, pro-Israeli hawks on Reagan's staff inspired press criticism of Schmidt after Schmidt got to see the American president-elect, while Israeli President Begin did not. Richard Pipes later mused aloud that West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher was liable to Soviet pressure -- a charge that must have perplexed the Russians, who regularly castigate Genscher as the least cooperative of West German officials.
More recently, the West Germans have said Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger told them -- in Bonn -- how to run their country: they should cut social welfare to get more money for weapons.
In the first real policy test, however -- El Salvador -- the Reagan administration did modify its views in the direction of European perceptions. As a matter of tactics the Europeans did not oppose Haig's dramatic drawing of the East-West line at El Salvador. But they did add that what was really important in that country was social justice and political reconciliation.