The United States is attempting to get reluctant European allies to tighten economic screws on the Soviet Union as part of the allied response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
While it may sound highly technical to most people, this is actually one of the "gut" issues which could prove to be a test of allied solidarity over Afghanistan.
Secretary of State Cyrus Vance is expected to discuss trade sanctions against the Soviets, among other things, in talks with West German officials in Bonn starting Feb. 20.
State Department officials say the US is not asking that the West Europeans cut off all trade with the Soviet Union, but it is asking that they stop making it easy for the Soviets to pay for that trade. They are proposing that the Europeans curtail the financial credits and guarantees which they provide for trade with the Soviets.
Billions of dollars in trade are involved. Thus, it is not surprising that the Germans, French, and British are reported to be reluctant to go along with US proposals on the subject. They have a good deal more to lose from any reduction in trade with the Soviets than the US does. For one thing, they do more business with the Russians than the Americans do. And while the US does not extend official trade credits to the Soviets, the Europeans buttress a large portion of their trade with official credits and guarantees.
According to one expert, the French fear that if they switch to ordinary bank rates in trading with Russia, business with the Soviets will increasingly go to the West Germans. French industrialists argue that the only effect of such a switch would be to damage France's industry and exports. And the French government apparently is reluctant to go along with any such move, in part because it might smack of a cold war and "bloc politics" against the Soviets.
Both the French and the Germans want to preserve certain aspects of detente with the Soviet Union in an effort to contain, through diplomacy, the crisis which has arisen over Afghanistan.
American concern over European credits and guarantees for Soviet trade is not completely new. It was a concern of Henry Kissinger when he was secretary of state.
Defenders of such East-West trade have held that it has given the Soviet Union a greater stake in peace and in detente with the West. They argue further that economic sanctions have rarely been successful in the past. Critics argue that subsidized trade and technology sales have merely made it easier for the Soviets to build their war machine.
Secretary of State Vance is flying to Europe at a time of some tension with the French over the way in which President Carter has reacted to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It is also a time at which key European countries seem to be moving toward coordinating their post-Afghanistan strategy in ways which are, to a degree at least, independent of the United States.