Arms: the German factor

It is probably fair to observe that, if the Reagan administration had foreseen the problems which its sanctions on the natural gas pipeline project would create in the Atlantic alliance, it would have handled the whole affair differently. Now the United States is having to make a valiant effort to put the pipeline issue behind and repair its relations with its allies. This it appears to be doing. The NATO foreign ministers, meeting in Quebec, have agreed to move beyond the sticky pipeline issue and try to find ways to coordinate policy on trade with the Soviet bloc.

Since nothing serves Moscow more than having the allies at loggerheads, this return to a measured discussion of what policy on East-West trade should be is welcome.

But is another problem in East-West relations looming on the horizon which might also be forestalled by a bit of forethought? We have in mind the talks which have resumed in Geneva on controlling intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe. To all intents and purposes there has been little progress in these talks. The US put on the table a proposal - the so-called ''zero option'' - that is totally unacceptable to the Soviet Union, which would be required to dismantle missiles it has had in place for two decades now. For their part, the Russians, perhaps calculating that there is no reason to be forthcoming as long as the allies are so divided, have countered with a proposal that also is not viable. Neither side appears to be giving anything.

Developments in West Germany ought to prod both sides to take the negotiations more seriously, however. On the face of it the move to the right in Bonn must look good to the Reagan administration. Chancellor Helmut Kohl firmly backs the US plan to deploy 572 Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles in Europe by December 1983 (as did his Social Democratic predecessor Helmut Schmidt). Yet Mr. Kohl faces an uncertain future with respect to opposition from the left. As plans for the deployment move forward, the antinuclear forces and peace groups could gain in strength, making things very uncomfortable for the Kohl government. Observers warn of a left-right polarization of the country and even of civil disobedience.

This is not to forecast political turmoil. But it is clear that unless it is perceived by West Germans that Moscow and Washington are negotiating seriously about the nuclear balance in Europe opposition to the US missile deployments could grow once more after a year of relative quiet. Mr. Reagan's ''zero option'' proposal in fact came in response to the widespread 1981 peace demonstrations in Europe. By putting forth a plan and sitting down to negotiate with the Russians, the President helped defuse the antinuclear movement. But, with the Social Democrats moving farther left, and the so-called Greens beginning to play a pivotal political role, he would be remiss not to take into account the potential for social disruption in Germany. This may be a prudent time for the administration to start feeling for an acceptable compromise and to strike a deal with the Soviet Union.

The Russians, in turn, also have to assess future prospects. They might reasonably calculate that a right-left confrontation in West Germany was made to order for their purposes and that they should wait and see what kind of anti-American flak is generated by the US missile deployments. Yet, judging from the German experience in the 1920s and 1930s, they might make a mistake holding out for a leftist resurgence.If the Russians seek credibility in Europe, it would be in their interest, too, to come to an agreement.

Unfortunately, there seems to be little inclination to compromise at the moment. The Reagan administration is trying to give the appearance of things moving forward. Officials describe the negotiations as ''serious'' and the discussions as ''frank.'' Yet the differences in the negotiating positions remain wide and there is no sign they are being narrowed. As important as these negotiations are - not to mention the wider talks on strategic nuclear weapons which resume this week - there is scarcely a mention of them in the higher reaches of government.

Does the President want arms control - and a consequent budget savings? Does he foresee the possible political consequences in Europe if he waits?

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