The longer the Reagan administration takes to decide the appropricate balance between how much to rearm against the Soviets and how far and how earnestly to pursue arms control, the greater grow the strains between the United States and its European allies.
A pro-alliance commentator on the BBC World Service this week described US-European relations as worse than at any time since NATO was established over three decades ago.
The tension stems from the conflicting priorities on each side of the Atlantic. In oversimplified terms, the Europeans want detente (or arms control) first and rearmament against the Soviets second -- and then only if convincingly necesarry. This is partly because the fruits of detente have been sweeter for Europe than they have been for the US.
The US puts things the other way round. It wants first to restore at least parity in arms with the Soviets -- particularly in the European theater of NATO -- and only thereafter to proceed with arms control negotiations.
Initially at issue was the 1979 NATO decision to counter Soviet SS-20 missile and Backfire bomber superiority in the European theater by installing in West Germany and other European lands by 1983, US cruise and improved Pershing II missiles, both capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
But the recent US decision to proceed with production of neutron warheads and European fears that the US is about to embark on a new program of chemical (nerve gas) weapons development has only exacerbated European sensitivities. The Europeans fear that if neutron bombs and nerve gas are used in Europe in the event of US-Soviet hostilities, European civilians -- not American and russian soldiers -- will be the principal victims.
Again in oversimplified form, The European cry is "No annihilation without representation."
And it is a clinical fact that neutralist or at least antinuclear sentiment is growing among European electorates. In this, European electorates are out of step with the US electorate, which has emerged from its post-Vietnam withdrawal and lack of will to support rearmament against the Soviets -- as was shown during last fall's American presidential election campaign.
In fairness to European governments and defense specialists, it must be noted that they well perceive the persistent and growing Soviet threat, but they cannot ignore the changing electoral climate at home. Needless to say, in every European member-state of the NATO alliance, the communists and the extreme left are doing everything to intensify neutralist and antinuclear sentiment. They have, of course, the full encouragement of Moscow. This trend is apparent even in Britain and West Germany, so long considered the most dependable and committed of alliance members.
Vignettes indicating the challenge to US leadership of the alliance are there for the culling. They include:
* US Secretary of State Alexander Haig's flight into West Berlin for a major Foreign-policy speech Sept. 13. Awaiting him was no vast friendly throng such as exploded into cheers when a visiting President Kennedy cried out 18 years ago , "Ich bin ein Berliner." Instead, Haig was met by tens of thousands of hostile demonstrators protesting against US foreign policy. This in a city that has depended for nearly 40 years on the us umbrella for its ultimate freedom.
* The joint statement Sept. 12 by West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and Italian Prime Minister Giovanni Spadolini deploring what they described as lack of consultation between Washington and its European allies. (Mr. Haig flew to Bonn after his West Berlin speech for talks with Chancellor Schmidt.)
* The attempted assassination in Heidelberg, West Germany, Sept. 15 of Gen. Frederick Kroesen, Supreme Commander of US Army forces in Europe. The general escaped with only minor injuries from the bombing of his car, thought to be the work of West German leftist extremists. This follows a bomb blast Aug. 31 at US Army Air Force Headquarters at Ramstein, West Germany, the setting on fire of US cars in Wiesbaden the next day, and a gasoline bomb attack on the residence of the US consul in Frankfurt. This adds up to four such attacks in two weeks. The extremist Red Army Faction (the remnants of the Baader-Meinhof gang) claimed responsibility for the Ramstein bombing.
* NATO autumn exercises in Europe are now under way. Television news in the US showed them beginning this week in Denmark against a background of anti-US and antinuclear protest demonstrations.
* In the Netherlands, what amounts to a veto, at least for the time being, on the Netherland' acceptance of cruise missiles. Christian Democrat Prime Minister Andreas van Agt had to leave that "veto" intact to get the Labor Party into a coalition under his leadership (after four month of fastidious negotiating in the wake of a swing to left-of-center in general elections in May).
* In Belgium -- where tha Dutch-speaking Flemish component of the population reflects in some measure the thinking across the border in the Netherlands -- delicately balanced coalition politics are having a similar antinuclear effect on government.
In Greece, admittedly not a candidate for the stationing of cruise or Pershing II missiles, campaigning is under way for the Oct. 18 general election. Most observers concede that the Greek voters might then oust the pro-NATO government of incumbent Prime Minister George Rallis and install in his stead the anti-NATO Socialist Andreas Papandreou, whose aim is to take Greece out of NATO altogether.
Simultaneously, there is a drifting apart between the US and some of its European allies on non-NATO issues, such as policy in South Africa, the Middle East, and Central America.
About the only immediate crumb of comfort for President Reagan and Secretary Haig is the defeat of the incumbent Labor Party in Norway's general election last weekend. If Labor had been returned to power, it might have swung in the direction of a nordic nuclear-free zone. The conservative coalition now likely to take over is expected to continue Norway's cautious loyalty to the alliance -- indispensable for proper and efficient monitoring of Soviet submarine movements to and from the Atlantic.
Growing anti-American and neutralist thinking in Europe is frustrating and ironic for both official and public opinion in the United States. Secretary Haig gave measured vent to this in his West Berlin speech, when he said:
"I detect a growing double standard in the West toward appropriate norms of international behavior: One is a supercritical standard applied to those who cherish diversity, tolerate dissent, and seek peaceful change [i.e. the US]. The Soviet Union has occupied Afghanistan since 1979 . . . . Vietnam . . . has enslaved its southern population, has seized Kampuchea [Cambodia] and now threatens the peace of Southeast Asia. Where are the demostrations agains these outrages?"
At the strictly US-West German level there is piquancy in the growing anti-cruise and Pershing missile sentiment among Germans: Chancellor Schmidt was among the first to ask in the 1970s that something be done to redress the Soviet nuclear advantage within the European theater of NATO.
Today, Moscow's prime and immediate aim is to prevent at all costs the planned installation of those missiles anywhere in Europe, an planned by NATO for 1983. The campaign at the moment is going in the Soviets' favor. The challenge to the US is to reverse this.
A prerequisite would seem to be to cecapture for the U.S the moral advantage in Europe which -- if still not in Soviet hands -- has at least been dashed from American hands by skillful Soviet propaganda, despite Afghanistan, despite poland, despite flouting of the Helsinki undertakings, and despite the ruthless crushing of all dissidents within the uAAR itself.