Geneva — A funny thing happened to ''linkage'' on the way to the START (Strategic Arms Reduction) talks here. It's become a baddie for the United States, which was keen on it before. And it's become a goodie for the Europeans, who frowned on it earlier.
This phenomenon surfaced at a recent conference on security sponsored by the Social Democratic-connected Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Bonn. West German Defense Minister Hans Apel warned the Americans that they couldn't expect much progress in the START talks if they in effect now conduct economic warfare on the Soviet Union. Nor, in such an atmosphere of confrontation, could they expect wary European public opinion to think the US was serious about negotiating nuclear arms control.
Under the conference ground rules the informal discussion that followed Apel's presentation was not for attribution. But it can be said that key American participants, including both present and past government officials, rejected the warning. They indicated that superpower arms control talks would and should proceed on their own merit, and that Washington would not try to be nice to Moscow in other areas in some nebulous attempt to pour good will on the Geneva arms talks.
The shift in US and European positions is worth noting. As recently as five months ago they were conspicuously reversed.
It was then six weeks after the declaration of martial law in Poland. Within the Reagan Administration US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. was being criticized even for going ahead with a prearranged meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko in Geneva.
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was proclaiming publicly that the US should not resume arms control negotiations with Moscow in the wake of the Polish repression. Under such pressure no START date was set (as originally intended) at the January Haig-Gromyko meeting.
That was American linkage. The Western Europeans were upset by it and thought the superpowers should talk about arms control regardless.
Now it's the other way around. The US is saying that arms control is in a category by itself and is too important to be buffeted by every storm in East-West relations. The US is simultaneously conducting what the Europeans regard as economic warfare on the Soviet Union.
That's American ''dislinkage.'' And it's the turn of the Europeans to protest that overall East-West relations form some seamless web.
Of course there's a logical explanation for the different perspectives. It doesn't necessarily endear the Americans and Europeans to each other, however.
The Americans tend to link arms control with the issue of Soviet military assertiveness abroad (and to include in this category the Polish repression, taken under the implicit threat of a Soviet invasion of Poland). Yet they tend to dissociate arms control from the issue of American economic confrontation of the Kremlin (as, for example, in barring European licensees of American technology from selling gas pipeline compressors to the Soviet Union). And the intramural Reagan Administration battle to get the START talks going at all may even have been advanced by a certain compensation in a harder American line on trade relations with Moscow.
The Europeans, by contrast, tend to dissociate arms control from the issue of Soviet assertiveness abroad. (In particular, they separate it from Soviet assertiveness in Poland, which they regret but still regard as an exercise of power in what has been an acknowledged Soviet sphere of influence for four decades). Yet the Europeans tend to link arms control with American bellicosity toward the Soviet Union - and to fear that arms control could not survive such confrontation.