London — The crisis in the Gulf is stirring European defense experts to wonder whether Europe needs its own military force to protect its interests, regardless of United States calculations.
On the surface, West European support for President Ronald Reagan's strategic assessments in the Middle East remains firm. American and British officials, for example, opened talks in Washington May 22, to discuss the Gulf situation.
But threats to the free flow of oil out of the Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz are prompting some private calculations. To a large extent, they depend on the arithmetic of Gulf oil supplies.
More than 25 percent of Western Europe's petroleum comes from the Gulf, compared with less than 5 percent for the United States. When news came through that neutral tankers were being attacked by Iran and Iraq, the shock waves in the City of London were immediate. Spot oil prices rose sharply.
Western European governments noted that, without US participation, little could be done to keep the cap on the Gulf violence. Despite small contingents of British and French warships in waters adjacent to the Gulf, the Europeans lack the ability to intervene to deal confidently with a crisis in the area.
President Reagan's handling of the Lebanon crisis earlier in the year did not inspire respect in European capitals. Also, it is election year in the US, and American military judgments are inevitably colored by political considerations.
This has led European politicians to launch some new thoughts on defense of their countries' interests.
The British Social Democratic leader, David Owen, has proposed that the 10 -nation European Community should acquire its own competence in the military sphere. Mr. Owen's ideas, which exclude the US from the proposed grouping, have stimulated debate in other British political parties, including the Conservative Party.
President Francois Mitterrand of France has approached the problem from a different angle, proposing that the Western European Union, a political grouping that has largely been ignored since the development of NATO, should become the nucleus of a European defense effort, separate from the US.
The Western European Union includes Britain, France, West Germany, and Italy, all of which are dependent on Gulf oil supplies. Mr. Mitterrand's proposal seems to have struck a chord among WEU members andthey will meet in Paris next month to discuss ways of expanding the WEU's activities.
Senior British ministers have given a guarded welcome to the Mitterrand initiative, conceding that it is helpful, but warning that if badly handled, it could alienate the US.
A major problem faced by the Europeans is that for many years they were content to let the US dominate NATO. They assumed that the chief threat to their interests was a Soviet attack in Europe.
The Gulf crisis, however, has reminded Europeans that their situation could suddenly become very bad without the Russians launching any direct attack at all.
If it does nothing else, the current situation may prompt governments on this side of the Atlantic to think much more in collective defense terms and to consider ways of reinforcing European political influence by ensuring that there is military muscle in the European stance.