THE dispute between Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl over modernizing NATO's short-range nuclear weapons can be seen as a small, sharp illustration of things to come for the future of Western Europe. It's not simply a matter of replacing the Lance with a relative handful of more powerful, more accurate missiles of longer range. It's not even about the broader issue of getting rid of all battlefield nuclear rockets and artillery.
The intra-alliance squabble between the British prime minister and the West German chancellor has to do more with the way central European countries - allies and adversaries - will relate to one another on into the 21st century.
To what extent will Western Europe rationalize its now-separate monetary and trade systems come 1992? How successful will Mikhail Gorbachev be in reducing the Soviet military threat as part of economic restructuring? How far will Eastern European countries go (or be allowed to go) in liberalizing politically as a precursor to increased economic ties with the West? And the bottom line, of course: Will it be a safer part of the world? Or one that is simply more complicated?
You can see the political impact of such questions throughout NATO. Chancellor Kohl wants to talk with Moscow sooner rather than later about reducing battlefield nukes, but stops short of insisting that they be done away with altogether. His more liberal coalition partner, Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher (who was born in East Germany), reminds Germans that reunification should be a goal.
As part of its deficit-reduction budget plan, Canada targets for elimination a new nuclear submarine designed to patrol Arctic waters against Soviet attack. And as reported on Page 7 of the Monitor today, Americans, too, would zero in on nuclear weapons first as a way to cut defense spending.
There are ways to get around the flap over the Lance missile when NATO leaders get together later this month, and it's in the interest of all - Mr. Kohl, Mrs. Thatcher, and everybody in between - that a resolution be found.
Whether it's formalized for short-range nuclear weapons or not, the model for us is still the alliance's dual-track decision of a decade ago on intermediate-range weapons: Proceed with plans to modernize Lance up to the level of Warsaw Pact capabilities while formally negotiating their eventual elimination.
It should be kept in mind that the Soviet Lance equivalents already have the longer range the new NATO missile would provide. Opponents will say this is a waste of time and money. But ``arming to parley'' (to paraphrase Churchill) is rarely efficient and economical. And for the moment it's still necessary.