THERE was good and bad news at a recent conference on ``East-West Relations With the New Men in Moscow'' at Ditchley Park, England. The bad news was that the gathering of officials, politicians, businessmen, journalists, and academics there demonstrated a major gap between American and European perspectives on dealing with Mikhail Gorbachev's Soviet Union. As for the good news, there was a consensus that the alliance -- all disagreements notwithstanding -- can and should be preserved. Specific positions articulated by some European participants suggested that exploiting Western discord is not going to be easy for the Kremlin. For instance, the British, and especially the French, remain adamant in their determination to modernize nuclear forces. Mr. Gorbachev, however, insists that freezing this national deterrence is a condition for removing American and Soviet intermediate-range missiles from Europe. Accordingly, Paris and London, even more than Washington, refuse to accommodate Gorbachev's arms control demands.
Yet, the perception in Western Europe -- in politics perceptions are reality -- is that the Reagan administration is belligerent, unilateralist, and insensitive to the concerns of the allies. Even the most conservative and pro-American British politicians and commentators were infuriated by the recent decisions and rhetoric coming from the White House. The raid on Libya and the announcement regarding the end of compliance with SALT II agreements became particular sticking points. Some of the staunchest friends of the US in Britain were urging America, for the sake of transatlantic unity, to move quickly toward some arms control accord with the Soviet Union. Even if such an agreement were not terribly important in itself, even if it involved some marginal concessions distasteful to the Reagan administration, it is obvious that this contribution to the NATO consensus would make it worthwhile.
Here is the crux of the US dilemma: To keep the West Europeans happy would require avoiding doing just about anything with the potential to aggravate East-West tension. But that would be contrary to the very purpose of the alliance, which, after all, was created to protect Western interests through strength rather than appeasement. As one British participant observed, we have a curious situation when arms control violations help Moscow to generate trouble inside the alliance. Impotent to force the Soviets into compliance with arms agreements, some Europeans tend to blame the Reagan administration for undermining peace and tranquillity by raising the issue of Soviet cheating. Cheat quietly in return, they say, but don't rock the East-West boat by taking a tough stand threatening the future of arms control.
No American President, including the current incumbent, has been able to follow this advice. As the leader of the alliance, the United States has the responsibility to pursue a hard line when the security and prosperity of the West are at stake. Europeans finding themselves on the sidelines of decisions affecting their destiny, having differing traditions, circumstances, and -- significantly -- often differing domestic political requirements, are bound to feel frustrated at times. This is unfortunate but inevitable.
Nothing said at the Ditchley conference implied that a unique and imminent crisis inside NATO is in the making. But conversely, it would be an illusion to think that the dispute will resolve itself without a concerted effort on both sides of the Atlantic.
There is also a realistic possibility that forthcoming elections in England and West Germany will bring to power governments considerably less sympathetic to President Reagan's foreign policy philosophy. Some influential elements in the British Labour and the West German Social Democratic Parties have evolved from criticism of specific US policies in the direction of outright anti-Americanism. Fortunately, chances are that if these parties took over, it would not be the radicals who would set the tone. Nevertheless, it is surely not in the US interest to take unnecessary steps that would complicate the lives of existing conservative governments and increase the power of the left wing among the opposition.
A Soviet effort to split the alliance is being conducted with new vigor and sophistication and should enter into Washington's calculations. Gorbachev still has a lot to learn and the continuing Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, and repression of dissidents at home constrain the Soviet political momentum in Europe. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President Fran,cois Mitterrand's recent meetings with Yelena Bonner are just another reminder of the Soviet difficulty in projecting a new, more open and attractive image. The Soviet handling of the Chernobyl disaster did not enhance Moscow's credibility in Europe, either.
Still, for the first time indications are that the United States is seriously challenged by the Kremlin in the competition for West European opinion. The Reagan administration is correct in arguing that America cannot accept for the Europeans' sake the lowest common denominator in dealing with a newly assertive Soviet Union.
But there is a cavalier attitude toward European complaints in some of the powerful quarters of Washington. That attitude is profoundly misplaced. The unity of the West is a crucial component of American strength vis-`a-vis the USSR. It cannot be sacrificed lightly.
Dimitri K. Simes is senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.