There are many in the Congress who doubt Europe's dedication to its own defense, and they are saying so. But it would be wrong to conclude, as many in the Congress have done, that the European allies are simply unwilling to shoulder their fair share of the common defense. The issues that divide the alliance are far more profound -- and too long unresolved.
Many in Europe see Soviet military might as defensive, or even paranoiac. Americans see it as a threat. Europeans see Soviet economic and societal stresses imploding one day. Americans fear an explosion, and want it contained.
In turn, these differences highlight the fundamental strategic disagreement between the United States and Europe as to what should be the role of NATO's conventional forces in a period of nuclear parity. Should deterrence continue to be one-dimensional? Or should it have both a nuclear and a conventional dimension?
In 1979, at the NATO 30th anniversary conference in Brussels, Brigadier Kenneth Hunt, now specialist adviser to the select committee on defense of the British House of Commons, presented a paper which explained that, if conventional forces were too strong, they would, in the eyes of many Europeans, weaken deterrence, since they would tend to weaken the nuclear link between a European battlefield and the US. Such a defense, he argued, would run the risk of inviting a protracted conventional conflict in Europe, with all the destruction that would surely follow.
At the same conference, I warned of growing congressional concern that (with nuclear parity) Americans may find themselves precipitated into a nuclear war because of the unnecessary weakness of allied conventional forces, and cautioned:
''The issue is not, as the Europeans have seen it, the coupling of nuclear forces to conventional forces. The issue is coupling American strength to European weakness, and then having to suffer the consequences. Coupling American strength to European strength will always have popular and political support, but strength to weakness risks decoupling, even of conventional forces.''
One senses that neither side of the Atlantic is politically aware of how wide the rift in the alliance has become, and how dangerous. Small measures won't put the alliance back together again. During the Carter years it was fashionable to scorn what were called ''grand designs'' for revitalizing the alliance, as if ''petite designs'' could somehow contain the massive Soviet military buildup.
The sixth NATO summit will convene in Bonn in June. On the one hand, plans are already under way to greet President Reagan with the largest antinuclear (and inevitably anti-American) demonstrations ever held in Europe. On the other hand, the Congress will be agonizing over whether and how to cut the largest peacetime defense budget in American history - well aware of the fact that scores of billions of dollars in that budget are earmarked for the defense of Europe, and of Europe's energy lifelines to the Middle East. Thus the NATO heads of government will meet at a time of danger for the alliance but also a time of great opportunity.
The defense of the West could be immeasurably strengthened, and the danger of continental and intercontinental nuclear war greatly reduced, if the allied heads of government were to agree at the Bonn summit to pool their efforts and resources, and to create a credible, collective conventional force for the defense of Europe. This would require agreement also on a collective defense-industrial effort within Europe, and between Europe and North America.
With half again as many people, and more than twice the GNP of the Warsaw Pact, a NATO/Warsaw Pact conventional balance could be achieved without economic strain -- if the financial burdens and the economic benefits (jobs and technological pride and progress) were equitably and efficiently shared.
The by-product of such an agreement would be to neutralize the antinuclear demonstrations by recognizing the need to raise the nuclear threshold in Europe, and to reduce the danger of nuclear war; to support the theater nuclear force modernization, while forcing the issue of first use of nuclear weapons back upon the Sovet Union; to strengthen the ''zero option'' proposals of the President; and to avoid a ''Mansfield amendment'' (calling for the return of American forces from Europe) by showing the Congress that the governments of Europe are prepared to join the US in building a credible, collective conventional deterrent.
A grand design? Yes. But the same grand design that the North Atlantic Council unanimously approved on May 17, 1950 -- and never implemented. Implementation could be safely postponed as long as the US had nuclear superiority. But no more. Nuclear parity has changed all that.
The threat to resort to nuclear weapons within Europe, and between the continents, can no longer be a rational alternative to adequate conventional defense. It is time to return to the alliance's first principles -- to collective conventional security -- and (in the process) to bring Europe and the US back together again.
The NATO heads of government will have the opportunity at this sixth NATO summit to give the North Atlantic Alliance a purpose and a direction to which people and politicians on both sides of the Atlantic can subscribe. Will the opportunity be grasped? Or lost?