Mikhail Gorbachev's new diplomacy is not only active. It is also skillful and going places. This week provides an impressive example. Our story begins a week ago, Feb. 20. On that day, a letter written by the Soviet leader was delivered to L'eo Tindemans, Belgian foreign minister and chairman of the conference of foreign ministers of the 12-nation European Community.
The Gorbachev text is not available at this writing, but we are told that it outlined the Soviet leader's ideas for a Middle East peace conference. The reply is on the record, and worth noting. The 12 EC foreign ministers issued a communiqu'e enthusiastically picking up the idea of a conference under UN auspices which would include ``any party able to make a direct and positive contribution to peace and to the region's economic and social development.''
In effect, Mr. Gorbachev proposed to West Europe that it join Moscow in setting up a new approach to the Mideast's problems, and got an eager ``yes'' in reply. There are two special dimensions to this exchange.
First, although the 12 foreign ministers have issued statements and taken positions as a group before this, this is the first time that an important sovereign country has addressed the group as a political entity. The Gorbachev letter to the group treats it more seriously than it has been treated before. The 12 nations include all of the important European members of the NATO alliance.
Second, from the Camp David agreements until today, the United States has presided over the peacemaking process for the Middle East and has consistently maneuvered to keep the Soviets out of the picture.
The communiqu'e of the 12 (made public in Brussels on Monday) agrees, in effect, with Moscow that the time has come to take the peacemaking process out of Washington's hands and put it into the broader context of a general conference including the Soviet Union.
The letter is explicit on the need. The 12 say they are ``profoundly concerned at the absence of progress in finding a solution to the Arab-Israel conflict.'' It notes that ``the civilian population is suffering more and more without any prospect of peace.'' And it says the community has already decided ``to grant aid to the Palestinian population of the occupied territories and to allow certain products from these territories preferential access to the community market.''
In other words, the 12 nations, which include all the US's major NATO allies, have committed themselves in an official document to the implied proposition that the situation in the Mideast is getting worse; that the US is doing nothing about it and is probably incapable, because of the Iran-contra affair, of doing anything constructive about it anyway; and that therefore these 12 nations are ready to work with Moscow for a new beginning in the search for Mideast peace.
The Moscow maneuver falls under the heading of Mr. Gorbachev's wooing of Western Europe. The maneuver was skillfully constructed. It flatters the foreign ministers of the 12 nations. It treats them as important and independent. It exploits the growing difference between the United States and its West European allies over Mideast policy. And it stresses a situation in which West European views have more in common with those of Moscow than with those of Washington.
It all began as an invitation to the 12 to collaborate with Moscow. The invitation was accepted, eagerly. The response was made public three days after the Gorbachev letter was delivered. For 12 European foreign ministers to agree on a matter of such importance, over a weekend, is in itself remarkable. A friendly dialogue has been opened between Moscow and the West European community.
The Middle East is not the only place where space is opening up between Washington and its European allies.
On Tuesday, the day after publication of the communiqu'e on the Middle East, NATO announced that Gen. Bernard Rogers will be retired in June as supreme allied commander in Europe.
The 16 members of NATO unanimously requested continuation of General Rogers's assignment for another two years. He has been a vigorous advocate of building the conventional strength of NATO. He has made it clear that in his own view the conventional defense of Europe is more important than President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative. In short, General Rogers's sense of priorities is closer to those of the European allies than to those of the Reagan White House.
He is being replaced by Gen. John Galvin, who, as head of the US Southern Command, has been running the military side of the Reagan campaign against the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.
The concern of the European 12 over conditions in the Mideast has been sharpened by recent events there. This was the week when the factional fighting in Beirut became so violent that the Syrian government decided to try forcefully to restore peace and order.
There was no evidence that Washington was in any condition to try to exercise a new Mideast peace initiative. Everyone there seemed to be just waiting for the next episode of the Iran-contra affair.