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Why NATO breathes easier

By Joseph C. Harsch / October 22, 1982

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

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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.)

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.