Why NATO breathes easier

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NATO diplomats surveying the world scene are experiencing a pleasant sense of semi-relaxation from anxiety these days.

A number of situations are easier from their point of view.

First and foremost is that they think they have the Siberian pipeline muddle under control. A compromise settlement is supposedly wrapped up and almost ready for public unveiling. President Reagan will withdraw his sanctions against his own allies. In return the allies will tighten up on the flow of modern technology to the Soviets and slow down on easy credit and soft loans. (The US-European trade confrontation over steel has also been sidestepped. Story, Page 7.)

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Second, the Chinese and Soviets have had their first meeting in three years in Peking, with no decisive change coming out of it. In effect, the Chinese have agreed to normalize their relations with Moscow. But, in practice, nothing seems to have happened to cause concern in the West. China is not moving back into an alliance with the Russians. Soviet forces facing China are not about to be freed for redeployment against NATO.

Third, the Middle East is off the front burner and at simmer at the back of the stove. American diplomacy has settled down to the process of trying to negotiate a mutual withdrawal of Israeli, Syrian, and Palestinian armed forces from Lebanon. Washington is not at present pushing for a complete solution of the Palestinian problem. It is allowing the various parties concerned to mull over the President's peace plan of Sept. 1.

In other words, the damage done to the NATO alliance and to the American position in the world during the first Reagan year and a half is now under control and being repaired. The NATO alliance is not going to come apart. China is not fatally alienated from the West and is not turning back to Moscow.

President Reagan inherited from his predecessors a favorable American position in the world. It was anchored in Europe in the NATO alliance - despite some rocky patches during the Carter era. It was anchored in the Far East by good relations with Japan and improving relations with China. The world was multi-cornered. The US occupied the favorable balance of power position.

Two things could spoil that favorable position for the United States. One would be a breakup of the NATO alliance. The other would be China turning back to Moscow.

During the first Reagan year and a half, relations between Washington and other NATO capitals reached an all-time low. The West Europeans who had initially welcomed the possibility of firm American leadership after the Carter years quickly became frightened by the belligerent tone of Reagan rhetoric and horrified by talk of ''limited nuclear war.'' They were repelled by a policy of economic sanctions that could mean more unemployment in their factory towns.

In effect, there was a NATO mutiny against Washington leadership. The allies refused to go along with Reagan policy.

Also, during that same period, the long-standing US policy of reconciliation with China was in question. Mr. Reagan had made all sorts of rhetorical promises to Taiwan. They could not be reconciled with the reopening of US relations with mainland China. To the allies in Europe, and to the professional diplomats at the State Department, Mr. Reagan seemed to be throwing away the enormous advantage the West gained when President Nixon went to Peking and allowed China to reenter the world community.

The Middle East was still another cause of trouble within NATO. President Reagan was more pro-Israel than his predecessors. The European allies wanted Israeli expansion curbed, lest it drive Arabs toward Moscow and jeopardize their access to Gulf oil. Mr. Reagan appeared to take a tolerant, almost encouraging, view of Israeli expansion.

Mr. Reagan abandoned the position of his predecessors on Jewish settlements in occupied territory. They had called such settlements illegal. He took a softer line - until after the Lebanon invasion and Beirut massacre.

Since then Mr. Reagan has swung over to an official policy of restraining Israeli expansion. His Sept. 1 peace plan asks for a freeze on Jewish settlements in occupied territories. It looks toward Israeli withdrawal from most of the occupied territories. The US President is back in line with his allies - and with his predecessors both Democratic and Republican - on Middle East policy.

However, one tendency within the alliance community begins to loom as a danger perhaps even greater than the pipeline affair has been. Trade protectionism is rising throughout the Western community. More may develop. Reagan has had an excellent record so far of resisting demands for protectionism. But with US unemployment now higher than at any other time since World War II, there is a rising clamor for protectionist devices.

Protectionist devices preceded the Great Depression of the 1930s. Economists put much of the blame for the credit crash of 1929 on trade protectionism.

A net exporter of goods and services, the US has enjoyed a favorable balance of payments over the past four years (unfavorable in goods, but favorable overall). It therefore has more to lose than gain from a trade war. Besides, most protectionist clamor in the US today is aimed at Japan. Yet Japan is vital to the American position in the Far East. Japan is the military and political anchor of that position. Japan is vital to the containment of Soviet power in Asia.

The American position has recovered remarkably since George Shultz became US secretary of state. Under his quiet direction the damage to the alliance has been contained and probably will be repaired. The relationship with China has been salvaged. The US position in the Middle East has been moved back toward center from a decided pro-Israel bias.

It can no longer be said, as it was before the Israeli attack on Beirut, that US foreign policy is made in Tel Aviv.

One ingredient of the American position of the Kissinger-Nixon-Ford era is still missing. In those days Washington kept lines open to Moscow at all times. Nixon was meticulously even-handed between Peking and Moscow.

President Reagan has yet to resume substantive relations with Moscow. He has not regained the favorable balance of power position that Nixon built for Washington in the great US-Soviet-China triangle of power. China now has the better position, and consolidated it by ''normalizing'' its relations with Moscow last week.

But there are still nearly 50 Soviet divisions on China's frontier. Moscow still subsidizes Vietnam's military power. Moscow still maintains 100,000 soldiers in Afghanistan. So long as Moscow continues to do those things, its relations with China will be favorable to Western interests.

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