Thanks to rotten navigation aboard a Soviet submarine in Swedish waters President Ronald Reagan in Washington has a little more time for salvaging the NATO alliance.
The alliance is in trouble - not of course for the first time. But there are those who think that the danger is as serious right now as ever, and perhaps more so, because the Reagan administration has yet to focus on the gap that has developed between its declared purposes and the hopes and fears of the people of the alliance countries in Europe.
While Washington has been busy cutting social services to have more money for guns, the European allies have been yearning for words of peace and improved prospects for jobs. There is little in the Reagan program that seems responsive to the current needs of Europe. The Europeans want to believe that the Soviets are peace-loving and that Mr. Reagan's new guns are unnecessary.
This was the situation when, fortunately for Washington, the Soviet sub banged its nose into a rock in a Swedish harbor. The Swedes smelled around and came up with the unpleasant conclusion that said sub probably had nuclear weapons aboard.
Moscow's Leonid Brezhnev is due in Bonn on Nov. 23, undoubtedly for the purpose of stressing Moscow's alleged peaceable intentions and preferences. He has already gained much propaganda success from recent public pronouncements that have asserted the alleged unthinkability of nuclear war. This contrasted, as intended, with recent talk in Washington of the possibility of use of nuclear weapons in war.
The latest episode was the assertion by US Secretary of State Alexander Haig that NATO had contingency plans for using a nuclear device as a warning. This was denied by Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. The denial did not undo the implication so unwelcome to Europeans of a possible nuclear weapon being used deliberately in Europe. The conflict between the two statements added to uneasiness in Europe over the lack of coordination and consistency in Washington. What is Reagan policy on nuclear weapons anyway?
Another deadline is just beyond the Brezhnev visit to Bonn. On Nov. 30, East-West talks are supposed to open in Geneva on the subject of nuclear weapons in, and in range of, Western Europe. Can and will the US delegation at those talks arrive with the serious intention of finding an agreement with the Soviets which would reduce the number and size of such weapons based in Europe with European targets in their computer bellies? The Reagan administration has yet to make its search for limits on nuclear weaponry sound convincing in European ears.
The propaganda duel that goes on incessantly between Washington and Moscow had been going badly, indeed, for Washington - until that Soviet sub navigator made his mistake, and his ship got itself caught. Here was a graphic incident that tarnished the picture Mr. Brezhnev had been painting of a peace-loving Soviet government. Moscow also has nuclear weapons, and carries them around in European waters - even into the waters of neutral Sweden.
How often has NATO been salvaged by Moscow blunders?
NATO was languishing when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. It was languishing again when the Kremlin began tossing threats at Poland. It was languishing badly again when that submarine came to the rescue. NATO's leaders are most grateful, quietly, of course, for such blunders.
But the effect of that submarine blunder is not going to last for long. It will be forgotten in a few weeks if Moscow keeps up its peace propaganda offensive and if Washington continues to brandish its weapons while cutting social services and bashing trade unions. The two most important countries in Western Europe - West Germany and France - both have governments supported largely by trade unions and by the people of the working and poorer classes. They are not attracted by an American government that broke the air traffic controllers union and gives weapons a higher priority than social services.
All of which is another way of saying that the Reagan administration has not yet given major thought to ways and means of appealing positively to its West European allies.
Nor has it yet given much positive consideration to ways and means of keeping on good terms with mainland China. It is going through the final stages of decision on what kind of new weapons to sell to Taiwan. While it wrestles with this one, the regime in Peking is postponing the military mission it had originally intended to send to Washington weeks ago. The delay is undoubtedly intended to let Washington know that the idea of selling modern weapons to Taiwan is just as unpopular in Peking as sending such weapons to Saudi Arabia is in Israel.
Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford bequeathed to their successors a coherent system or consortium of countries drawn together by a shared preference for not being dominated by Moscow. The main elements of the consortium were North America, Western Europe, Japan, and China.
President Carter improved the relations with China, but was much criticized in Western Europe. Still, the consortium was the principal instrument of American foreign policy through the Carter administration and was handed along, if in slightly battered condition, to Mr. Reagan.
The system still exists. But like all alliances or associations of countries its survival depends on how much it continues to serve the mutual needs of the members and on how well it is tended by them.
The NATO alliance and the association with China are both suffering from neglect. In the Western diplomatic community there is gratitude for the assist from the Soviet submarine that lost its way. But there is also the hope that Mr. Reagan will begin to devote more time to the cultivation of friends and allies.