Brussels — The European view of the Soviet threat is basically compatible with Reagan philosophy. The European view of how to counter that threat is less than compatible with Reagan philosophy. This is the ambivalent state of affairs in the most important question facing the Atlantic alliance: East-West relations.
In assessing the Soviet threat, there has been more American-European agreement than meets the eye, even in the period right after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. American and West German diplomats in Bonn and Brussels concur on this point, especially as they measure the reactions of the linchpin European ally, West Germany.
Both American and European foreign policy elites (the strategy designers and implementers) generally see the Soviet Union as having exhausted much of its earlier ideological, economic, and political appeal to the outside world. They see present-day Moscow as relying almost exclusively for its international influence on the one capability in which it excels -- military power. Czechoslovakia in 1968, Afghanistan in 1979-80, and to some extent Angola and Ethiopia in the mid- 1970s illustrate this thesis.
The Reagan team might be more inclined to label the Kremlin expansionist. The Europeans might be more inclined to label the Kremlin paranoid, insisting on a Soviet security so all-encompassing that it requires the insecurity of any neighbor bordering on the Soviet empire. But this distinction is an academic one. Whatever the motivation, both Americans and Europeans see the same effect: a bias toward military filling of any vacuums that occur at the edge of Soviet power.
More serious differences arise in the corollary evaluations of just how bold or cautious the Kremlin is in exploiting the vacuums.
For the Americans two elements of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan were especially shocking. To begin with, this was the first time in three decades that the Soviet Union sent its own troops (and not just proxies) on military operations outside the imperium that Moscow gained as a result of World War II.
Second, the Kremlin's previous pattern of notable caution in taking risks seemed to have changed significantly, with Moscow initiating military action this time even when there was a high risk of provoking American retaliation elsewhere.
In the first few months of 1980 the French declined to see such a sharp break with past Soviet practice.
The West Germans did see such a break. But both Paris and Bonn thought that Washington had a weak hand. A United States that was probably not going to ratify the signed Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II) was offering Moscow few incentives for good behavior. A Washington that had its hands tied in Southwest Asia by the Iranian hostage crisis was in no position to threaten Moscow with disincentives for bad behavior. In this context the risks the Soviet Union ran in Afghanistan didn't loom that large.
To some extent the French moved more toward the American assessment as French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing felt himself duped by what he had thought was a Soviet signal that the Soviet Union would retreat gradually from Afghanistan as the Iran-Iraq war brought home the vulnerability of mideast oil and as the Russians began threatening Poland in Western Europe's backyard.
The European-American convergence in perception of the threat has been repeated only partly, however, in the devising of policies to counteract the Soviet threat.
Militarily, there is agreement that NATO must proceed with deploying a limited number of new medium-range nuclear weapons in the mid-1980s.
Politically, the trickier question has been what to do about what is left of detente.
After Afghanistan, incumbent President Carter and future President Reagan insisted that there must not be East-West business as usual. The 1970s detente was finished; it had only been a Soviet trap to get the West to lower its defenses. SALT 1 had failed to block the Soviet military buildup of tanks, submarines, and SS-20s in the 1970s. SALT I had failed to establish Henry Kissinger's cherished code of conduct and restrain Soviet adventures abroad. SALT I had failed to stop Angola, Ethiopia, and Afghanistan from going down the drain.
For the Europeans there was no comparable disillusionment with detente, since they had never shared Washington's original expectations about detente. Military preparedness and detente (including arms control) were seen as complements, not as alternatives. While the US reduced its expenditures throughout the 1970s, West Germany made real defense increases every year that were close to what is now the prescribed NATO hike of an annual 3 percent. While the US disbanded its conscript army, West Germany maintained its conscript army.
Yet at the same time, West Germany reaped the tangible benefits of detente in a way the distant US never did -- in a normalization of West German transit traffic across East Germany to West Berlin; in human contacts by the millions across an East-West German border that had before been sealed; in the unexpected emigration of ethnic Germans to West Germany from the Soviet Union, Poland, and Romania; in increased trade and construction contracts. And today the West Germans also credit detente with the extraordinary Polish liberalization, which they think could never have evolved under cold-war tensions.
To register Western displeasure with Soviet aggression in Afghanistan, the West Germans (though not the French) were willing to embargo high-technology exports to the Soviet Union in 1980 and boycott the Moscow Olympics. But they could not see why Western Europe should gratuitously import Afghan tensions and shut off East-West contacts that they deemed more beneficial to the West than to the Soviet Union. Or, in the case of the pending gas-for-pipeline deal, at least as beneficial to an energy-hungry West as to a technology-hungry Soviet Union.
Nor, in more recent linkage, could Europeans understand the logic of the affable US defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger, in writing off Poland last April and seeking to ostracize Moscow before rather than after any invasion of Poland. For the Europeans, such a stance simply signaled to the Kremlin that East-West relations were already so bad that it would have nothing to lose in this area by actually carrying out an invasion.
These divergent analyses also extend, of course, to the whole question of superpower dialogue. To the Europeans such dialogue is an essential tool of avoiding and managing crisis. They say Washington should keep on talking with Moscow no matter what the shifts in military balance, and almost no matter what Soviet actions there are -- short of the Polish invasion -- around the world.
The Reagan administration's instincts, on the other hand, are to put off talking until the US is stronger militarily -- and to set the further condition for dialogue of demonstrated Soviet restraint around the world.
For now the transatlantic foreign policy professionals have patched together a compromise. Mr. Reagan has promised to open negotiations with the Soviet Union this year on limiting European medium-range nuclear weapons -- while refusing to resume talks about strategic, intercontinental arms control. How well this US-European compromise will survive the hammering out of a concrete negotiating position and the inevitable quagmire of the talks remains to be seen.
In other countermeasures, there are also major American-European differences in treatment of the third world. Here the Reagan administration has made its military focus clear by slashing foreign economic aid, initially setting up El Salvador as the test case of Soviet expansion, and maneuvering to resume military aid to the guerrillas opposing the Soviet-backed government of the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola).
The Germans, however, argue forcefully that the third-world revulsion at the invasion of Afghanistan would only squandered by such ignoring of social grievances and such insistence that all third-world countries either declare themselves pro-Western or else be counted as adversaries.
Instead, West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher keeps emphasizing, the third world must be encouraged in its new realization: that true nonalignment also means no alignment with a Soviet Union that is at least as great a threat to the third world as the West is seen to be. Genuine nonalignment, Mr. Gensher believes, could only benefit a West, that is naturally much more comfortable with diversity than is the Soviet Union.
The policies that follow from this premise would include seeking a Zimbabwe-like diplomatic transition to black rule in Namibia (rather than cozying up to South Africa); negotiating with an interested Angolan government about the reduction of Cuban troops in that country (rather than reinforcing the Cubans' presence by arming the guerrillas); using the West's superior economic strength to expand development aid (rather than curtailing it); treating local grievances on local (rather than East-West) merits; and nudging the Israelis toward a more permanent accommodation of the Palestinians (rather than endorsing new Israeli settlements on the West Bank.
Here the US has moved partly toward European views as Washington's roving ambassadors have collided with the ornery facts on the ground in Africa and the Mideast.But here, too, it is uncertain whether ad hoc common policies will develop a momentum of their own that can hold America and Europe together -- or an inertia that can drag them apart.
One final American-European difference -- in assessing the varying assessments of the Soviet Union -- should be mentioned.
The Reagan administration tends to think that Europe's skittishness about belligerent confrontation with the Soviet Union and its preferences for arms control and diplomacy arise from Western weakness and fear of Soviet power. (Numerous French analysts share this view, especially as they look back at former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing's sneak meeting with Leonid Brezhnev in Warsaw after the invasion of Afghanistan.)
In this interpretation, all Washington has to do to restore American-European harmony on Soviet issues is to set a good example by beefing up American military might and showing itself tough toward Moscow. Publicly the West European governments might kick and scream. But in their heart of hearts they would love it, and their own backbone would be stiffened to stand up to Moscow.
Besides, this reasoning continues, in any resulting arms race the US can easily win by outspending the creaky Soviet economy.
Such reasoning alarms West German officials and probably all West European governments. They regard their own positions as based on nuclear common sense rather than fear. They think that a macho America would alienate European public opinion irrevocably and loose a real wave of neutralism.
They think an all-out arms race would be a disaster. They find America's nostalgia for its unique and unregainable postwar supremacy in the world irresponsible. They're not sure what "winning" an arms race in the 1980s might mean. They are sure that the US would not "win" it against a Soviet Union that was willing to sacrifice 40 million lives in World War II and Stalin's purges and can still coerce its population.
So far America's and Europe's professional diplomats have been masters at reconciling the contradictory transatlantic approaches to East-West relations into parallel day-to-day policies.And at this point a Soviet invasion of Poland -- unlike the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan -- would probably strengthen this parallelism by pushing Europe toward the Reagan administration's hard-line assumptions.
A prolonged period of Soviet ambiguity in Poland and elsewhere, however, could turn into a critical test of the Atlantic alliance's unity, perception, and flexibility.
Tomorrow: the missile-watch