London — IT was expected that some of the more vociferous negative reactions to the breakdown of arms control at the Iceland summit would come from the European allies. After all, Europeans never liked the ``star wars'' initiative very much, and it had been President Reagan's insistence at Reykjavik on going ahead with this grand vision that had blocked the prospect of removing all intermediate-range nuclear forces from Europe. Why, then, was the expected reaction notable only for its absence? The simple reason for the lack of a negative European reaction to the Reykjavik breakdown is that, while Europeans don't like star wars, they don't like the abolition of nuclear weapons very much, either. It was precisely the star-wars plan that blocked the Reagan-Gorbachev deal-that-could-have-been.
Yet, the European preference is not as contradictory as it might seem. Among reasons NATO allies are not enamored by star wars is fear that it might actually work, rendering nuclear arms, in Mr. Reagan's memorable phrase, ``impotent and obsolete.'' In a world without nuclear weapons, conventional forces would again predominate. Given prevailing perceptions of Soviet conventional superiority over NATO, war would again become possible, because it would again become winnable.
This fear of war again becoming possible also helps to explain Europe's post-Reykjavik ambivalence. If the reported deal worked out by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev at Iceland had actually been struck, the result would have been similar to deploying a perfect star-wars system. Under the Iceland deal, nuclear weapons -- be it only ballistic missiles in the American version, or indeed all nuclear weapons, as the Soviet Union insisted -- would have been abolished. In such a nonnuclear or nearly nonnuclear world, NATO would no longer be able to compensate for its conventional inferiority with the threat of nuclear destruction. As a result, the heretofore unthinkable war in Europe would again become a real possibility.
Yet, while European governments have breathed a sigh of relief at the Iceland summit breakdown, they still face a public that desperately wants an arms control agreement, most particularly one that removes the intermediate-range missiles deployed over much public objection since 1983. The governments are therefore in an even more ambivalent position. They can hardly defend the breakdown of the intermediate-forces deal in the name of the star-wars program they dislike as much as the nonnuclear world that was promised at Reykjavik.
One way out for them is to allow, if not encourage, NATO military chiefs to criticize the Reagan administration for its readiness to abolish nuclear weapons -- an unprecedented step in the history of the alliance. On Oct. 16, Gen. Hans-Joachim Mack, deputy supreme commander of NATO, expressed his concern that the military chiefs, and by implication the European governments, had not been sufficiently consulted before the Iceland meeting. At the same time, NATO's supreme commander, Gen. Bernard Rogers, wrote US Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger to complain about the administration's willingness to remove all INF missiles, without paying adequate attention to Soviet shorter-range missiles and the conventional force imbalance.
In the meantime, European governments expressed their unease over the administration's adamant position not to allow arms control agreements to interfere with star-wars prospects. In Bonn, Paris, and London it was strongly repeated that star-wars research could be conducted only within a strict interpretation of the ABM Treaty limits, a position that seems to be closer to that of General Secretary Gorbachev than that of President Reagan. And Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President Fran,cois Mitterrand met in London just days after the Iceland summit to reaffirm their commitment to their nuclear deterrents, thus reemphasizing that whatever the United States and the Soviet Union might dream of, neither Great Britain nor France was about to give up its nuclear weapons.
Europe, therefore, appears to be in something of a bind. Europe loves arms control, but not too much of it. It does not like star wars, but finds it useful in blocking arms control deals that go too far. It likes nuclear weapons, but must deal with a sizable public minority that clamors for their removal. It likes superpower summits, but only ones on which it is consulted.
Most of all, Europe likes its peace -- both of mind and in reality -- but not at the cost of arms control breakdowns. It will be difficult for anybody to satisfy these conflicting desires. Then again, so will it be difficult to abolish nuclear weapons -- be it through arms control agreements or star-wars defenses.
Ivo H. Daalder is a research fellow at the Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University, and author of ``The SDI Challenge to Europe,'' to be published by Ballinger next year.