London — Britain will attempt to puts its mark on the post-Reykjavik nuclear world when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher meets with President Reagan this weekend. And early next year, the British prime minister flies to Moscow for talks with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
The meetings are not accidental. Although the size of her country's nuclear arsenal is negligible compared to that of the two superpowers, Mrs. Thatcher's grasp of nuclear issues is widely respected in Washington. Moscow regards Britain, the United States' closest ally, as a useful sounding board to acquaint itself with American positions. Thus Thatcher is set to cement Britain's role as a conduit on arms talks between the two superpowers.
At another level, Britain is a forceful spokesman for Europe, particularly when Europe's interests diverge from Washington's. They have done this recently over the issue of whether to retain SALT II limits and in the debate over a non-nuclear Europe.
Thatcher's role as the longest-serving Western leader could become even more important when Mr. Reagan's term ends in 1988. Her earlier reluctance to stay in office much beyond the early stages of a third term has now been replaced with the prime minister's conviction that she could provide needed continuity in the Western alliance.
Although Reagan and Thatcher are firm friends who share a common ideological view of the world, they will not be seeing eye to eye on several key issues when they meet at Camp David tomorrow.
Britain is upset that the US has left it in the lurch after its decision earlier this month to unilaterally impose a 150-mile fisheries conservation zone around the Falkland Islands.
The US showed its displeasure by siding with a resolution from the Organization of American States censuring Britain this week.
International support for Britain on the Falklands has been precarious since World War II. But the US's decision to distance itself from its ally now leaves Britain feeling very isolated. Britain's rationale - to protect fishing when Argentina had rebuffed all initiatives - has been construed by its critics, including the US, as making the Falklands problem more difficult to resolve.
The US also takes the view that Britain should be more conciliatory in the face of a now more-democratic government in Buenos Aires.
The Falklands dispute falls hard on the heels of British embarrassment over US involvement in an Iranian deal to free American hostages in Lebanon. Britain has been the US's strongest backer in urging Europe to take an uncompromising stand against terrorists. Thatcher, who has taken the toughest stand of any leader against terrorist deals, is thought certain to express her disapproval to the President.
The principal focus of the Camp David discussions, however, will be to give Thatcher a reading on the recent Iceland summit. The British government sees itself as taking a more cynical and pragmatic line on nuclear arms control than Washington. Reagan's willingness to pursue a goal in which all nuclear weapons could be eliminated is charitably referred to here as ``visionary.''
As do its European partners, Britain feels that the US does not adequately appreciate that it is the nuclear deterrent that has maintained the peace in Europe for the past 40 years.
Removal of all nuclear weapons, Britain maintains, would only make Europe vulnerable to the Soviet Union's superiority in conventional arms.
Moreover, Britain is dubious about any Soviet intentions to surrender its nuclear capacity.
This, it is argued here, is the one thing that gives the Soviet Union its superpower status - a status it is unlikely to give up.
As a result, Thatcher will be pressing upon Reagan the need to retain Trident, which will will replace the existing and aging Polaris submarines in 1991 as the nuclear deterrent.
Thatcher will also convey her concern, shared in Europe, about Reagan's announced intention to move beyond the SALT II arms treaty limits. There has even been a suggestion that the President, who appears poised to scrap these limits, will not act until after Thatcher's visit to avoid displeasing her.