Washington — West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher are coming to see George Bush this week. ``America's two closest European allies are trying to get off on the right foot with the new administration,'' sums up a senior US diplomat.
``Americans forget how incredibly important the US is to our allies,'' says another US specialist on Europe. ``There is considerable worry after every election that `the elephant may change course.' Even though Mr. Bush is a known quantity, Chancellor Kohl and Prime Minister Thatcher are only the first of a long line of visitors.'' (British-US relationship, Page 7.)
This week's visits will not produce substantive decisions as the two Europeans pay their respects to President Reagan. But the talks will help set the tenor for managing the NATO alliance and relations with the Soviet Union in the months ahead.
At the heart of current allied discussions is how forthcoming a stance the West should adopt toward Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's regime.
Mr. Kohl, fresh from a visit to Moscow, favors extending large trade credits to strengthen Soviet reform and integrate Moscow into the global economy. He urges rapid progress in arms control while in the interim delaying NATO decisions on modernizing short-range nuclear weapons.
Kohl faces a German public opinion that views President Gorbachev more favorably than Mr. Reagan and Kohl himself. Almost 60 percent of Germans recently polled say they don't see the Soviet Union as a military threat.
Mrs. Thatcher is closer to Washington in her approach to Mr. Gorbachev. She argues that a strong NATO is the best Western insurance policy, even if Gorbachev is moving in a positive direction. Britain strongly supports modernizing NATO's short-range nuclear forces and is cautious about extending credit or selling sensitive technologies to Moscow.
President-elect Bush and the European leaders will also be grappling with defense ``burden sharing'' within the NATO alliance. Bush faces strong congressional pressure to win a larger European defense contribution as the US budget tightens.
Conventional-arms talks. The most pressing agenda item is whether to wrap up the current review meeting of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). This would allow new talks to begin on conventional force reductions in Europe.
West Germany is eager to begin those arms talks. The US and Britain have been pressing for more Soviet action on human rights questions before agreeing to a Soviet request to host a future CSCE human rights conference. The Soviets want the conference agreed to before ending the current CSCE meeting. West Germany is taking a more flexible position toward Moscow's request.
Arms control. Both leaders will carefully sound out Bush on this topic. The Germans are pressing hard for a total ban on chemical weapons and complain about US hesitancy. Kohl will urge rapid movement on strategic arms talks. Thatcher will urge caution on strategic arms. She is committed to not reducing Britain's nuclear forces, even if the superpowers agree to a 50 percent cut in their arsenals.
NATO modernization. Following the INF treaty, the US, UK, and others sought to confirm a 1983 decision to modernize NATO's short-range nuclear weapons (up to 300 miles). They argue modernization is needed to offset East-bloc advantages in conventional and remaining nuclear systems.
West Germany has tried to delay a formal decision to replace existing systems, for a number of reasons, including worries that Germany would end up looking like the only nuclear battlefield for a future war. A possible compromise is in the works. It would allow a modernized longer-range NATO tactical missiles in exchange for very deep cuts in the number of NATO's nuclear artillery.
Trade. West Germany is championing the theory that Gorbachev represents a historic opportunity to change the Soviet Union, and that the West should actively help him with trade and credits. During Kohl's October visit to Moscow, 33 commercial accords with an estimated value of $1.5 billion were signed. This is in addition to a $1.7 billion line of bank credit.
The US and Britain are worried that Western money and technology will be siphoned to the Soviet military. US officials say that despite Gorbachev's reforms, the Soviet military budget has not been cut, nor have aggressive Soviet military deployments been changed. In October, the US Senate urged NATO to discuss the security implications of what some estimate to be $8 billion in new Western credit to Moscow.