NATO may try a new detente 17 years after defining it

NATO's 35th anniversary meeting in Washington this week is expected to adopt a milestone study that not only comes to ''hard nosed'' conclusions about East-West detente but also seeks to maintain a dialogue with the communist bloc.

This report, expected to be adopted by NATO foreign ministers as a ''Washington declaration,'' is seen as possibly signaling a new Western interest in improving ties with Moscow.

Although some disputes remain over the study, senior West European officials say they are eager to codify a durable NATO policy on continuing contacts with the Soviet Union despite frequent shifts in American administrations and policy or suspensions of the superpower dialogue.

In recent weeks West European governments have sought to retain links with Moscow and other East-bloc capitals through a series of visits there to counter the freeze in relations between Washington and Moscow.

(The latest visitor, West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, said his talks Tuesday with top Soviet leaders gave him no cause to expect Moscow to return to nuclear arms control talks before the American election in November. A Genscher aide said the Germans got ''a bad feeling'' about East-West relations after his meetings, Reuters reported.)

American sources here have sought to play down the impact of the NATO study, saying it contains ''nothing terribly exciting or new.

Some also regard this transatlantic difference in attitudes toward contacts with the East as playing into communist hands by giving them an opportunity to exploit Western disunity.

Commenting on the United States-European difference on the importance to be attached to the study, a Western source referred to the ''obsession'' of German Foreign Minister Genscher for the document.

But a senior European diplomat here said the study and declaration should be ''an important political message'' for Eastern and Western leaders and public opinions during a period of international and internal tension.

The report is the first major internal NATO project on the subject of East-West detente since a similar report in 1967 by the then-Belgian Foreign Minister Pierre Harmel. The voluminous Harmel report, which resulted in a 17 -paragraph NATO public declaration on the issue, is seen as the starting point for the alliance's policy of detente with the Soviet bloc.

This update, prepared by Belgian Foreign Minister Leo Tindemans, is said to devote about half of its content to a ''hard nosed'' review and analysis of the results of these 17 years of detente. It will take into account the tension arising from Soviet actions in Afghanistan, Poland, Angola, and other trouble spots.

The second portion of the report is said to emphasize the need to retain a permanent dialogue and relationship despite such political clashes and leadership changes. The European allies also stress the importance of various East-West negotiations on arms control or contacts, such as the Stockholm conference on disarmament and confidence-building measures.

There is said to be a debate inside NATO over how much of the study should be made public. In all likelihood, the result will be a short public synopsis issued in Washington.

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