In a period of confusion in coordinating Western post-Afghanistan policy toward the Soviet Union, the West German government is trying to avert any Soviet miscalculation about disunity among NATO allies.
It is doing so, according to West German and American diplomats, both in its signals to Moscow and in its allied consultations.
Western Europe favors continued detente, but not at the expense of allied solidarity, Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher has been stressing publicly for several days. The Soviet Union would not succeed in driving a wedge between Europe and the United States either by threats or by enticements.
Specifically, Mr. Genscher and Defense Minister Hans Apel have been indicating that it would be unthinkable for West Germany to attend the Moscow Olympics if the US does not attend, and if the Soviet Union does not cre ate conditions appropriate to the Olympics.
West German concern about a possible Soviet misreading of NATO unity has been aroused by the collapse of the five-power foreign ministers' meeting that was tentatively scheduled for Feb. 20. This concern was heightened by several recent Soviet declarations that Western Europe must choose between detente in Europe and solidarity with the US.
The projected foreign ministers' meeting was abandoned when France got angry over a premature leak about it in Washington. Just how firm the arrangements were remains unclear even to diplomats of the five supposed participant nations -- the US, West Germany, France, Britain, and Italy.
The conference is to be replaced by bilateral US-West German ministerial talks in Bonn Feb. 20 and by prospective US-French talks in Paris immediately thereafter. The whole fiasco has left the Russians, as one diplomat put it, "laughing up their sleeve."
It has also left the front-line West Germans -- with an exposed West Berlin surrounded by East Germany -- worried that the Russians may think they can play off Western Europe against the US.
This worry has been fed by recent Soviet declarations that detente is not divisible. It is not possible to have detente in Europe, stated the official Soviet news agency Tass, and not have it elsewhere.
The West German government believes that these tough words are only routine propaganda reaction and do not reflect any Kremlin decision to encourage allied differences by an active carrot-and-stick approach. But it is not taking any chances on letting Soviet overestimation of Western differences grow into real efforts to split the allies.
At this point the Soviet government already has made it clear in diplomatic exchanges that it is not threatening West Berlin -- and that it does sep arate West Berlin from the Afghan crisis. Talks between the four powers in Berlin (the Soviets, Americans, British, and French) continue normally. So do the Central European arms-control negotiations and East-West German talks on concrete measures of economic and social cooperation.
Western diplomats further believe that Moscow has no wish to stir up more trouble in Western Europe now when it has its hands full in Afghanistan.
In relations with its allies, West Germany is determined to pick up the pieces as fast as possible after the collapse of the foreign ministers' confer ence. This means essentially trying to bridge the harder-line American and softer-line French views about Soviet policy. It also means -- Bonn hopes -- better consultation between the US and its European allies before positions are announced in Washington, and more concerted attention to a strategy of Soviet containment that goes beyond mere reactive tactics.
Bonn does not see any special need to reconcile the theoretical differences between the US and Western Europe in judging whether the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan as a drive toward Mideast oil fields (Washington) or as a matter of more localized military-political momentum (Europe).
But West Germany does deem it essential that a long-term strategy for deterring further Soviet military aggression be agreed on. Such a strategy must include pressure on Israel, Western Europeans believe, to reach a Palestinian solution, otherwise Muslim countries will not remain in the post-Af ghanistan consensus about deterring the Soviet Union.
The specifics that should be worked out in allied consultations in the next few weeks include the West German concept of a "division of labor," the beefing up of NATO forces in Western Europe to free American ships and troops for possible Mideast action, economic sanctions against the Soviet Union, and political consultation in NATO about areas (like the Mideast) that lie outside NATO's military sphere but affect its interest.
So far the US has not proposed anything concrete to its allies beyond a general request for more defense spending and tighter restrictions on technology sales and credits to the Soviet Union. Western European businessmen oppose economic sanctions, and the West German government appears reluctant to take any active position on this issue.
West Germany is going ahead, however, with programs in what it deems Bonn's special role in the "division of labor." It is organizing a long-term Western package of economic and military aid to rescue a bankrupt Turkey. It will aid in the rescheduling of Pakistan's debts, and it has just entertained the Iraqi foreign minister for talks on a possible European Community-Gulf states agreement on trade and political cooperation.