US State Department officials expect the Soviet Union within the next few months to launch a major diplomatic and propaganda offensive aimed at breaking Western solidarity.
Soviets attempts to "drive a wedge," as the cliche goes, between the Western Europeans and the United States are nothing new. But recent NATO alliance decisions on new nuclear weapons, plus a new sense of allied solidarity created first by events in Iran and then in Afghanistan, may require an intensification of this traditional Soviet effort.
State Department officials think that the soviets are likely to fail. There is, in some ways, more solidarity within NATO now than there had been just a few years ago. Indeed, six months to a year ago, most observers would have doubted that the Europeans and americans could achieve the degree of unity needed to go through with their controversial Dec. 12 decision to produce and deploy new nuclear missiles capable of striking from five west European countries into the Soviet Union.
Where solidarity could begin to break down, according to some Western diplomats, is in the field of collective or coordinated measures yet to be taken by the NATO allies in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. some diplomats at the United Nations think solidarity also could break down if the US decided to take military action against Iran.
The europeans are much more dependent on Middle Eastern oil than the Americans are. and, being much more export-oriented than the US is, they derive more benefit than the US does from trade with the soviet Union.
"When it's come to unified action in the past, the track record of the 'free world' has not been all that good," said one STate Department official.
Some officials show what might be described as moderate concern that the French will go their own way when it comes to allied coordination of the sale of high technology or industrial equipment to the Soviets. When the US backed out of a deal to sell the Tass news agency a computer some months ago, France moved in and sold the Soviets a French model that was roughly equivalent to the one the US had planned to sell. State Department officials who had opposed the US decision on the computer had predicted that this was precisely what would happen.
But most american officials seem to think the French are being more cooperative with the US, both on Iran and Afghanistan, than some press reports -- or statements made recently by French foreign Minister Jean Francois-Poncet -- might lead one to believe.
One official predicted that, given French concern with potential political attacks on the home front, from both the Left and the Right, the French are going to be "more difficult publicly than they are in reality."
One american expert on European affairs said that when it came to both Iran and Afghanistan the French actually had been "enormously helpful" in behind-the-scenes diplomatic contacts with nonaligned countries.
"The Soviets' main target remains [West] Germany," this expert continued. "They've been letting the Germans know how sensitive they are about longer-range nuclear missiles being based on German soil."
Adds a State Department official: "They will probably try to persuade the Germans that Afghanistan doesn't really affect EastWest relations; that they can still do business as usual.
"The Soviets will say that Afghanistan is really matter between them and the United States; that detente is important. . . . They know how important it is for the Germans to ensure a continued flow of East European emigrants. . . . But both Chancellor [Helmut] Schmidt and the Foreign Minister have made strong statements that will support a strong response.