A European initiative is setting the tone for US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance's two-day bilateral consultations with the West German, Italian, French, and British governments Feb. 19 to 21.
At least in their public aspect, the talks are focusing not on immediate tactics, but on a "general concept" or overall strategy for responding to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The "general concept" now on the table is the Feb. 19 Rome proposal of the nine European Community foreign ministers to declare Afghanistan a neutral state.Left to one side are the American desires for demonstrative economic, military, and sports penalties for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
State Department spokesman Hodding Carter said in Bonn that the United States welcomes the proposal as one of many ideas currently being discussed.
The EC proposal, which has yet to be fleshed out in such areas as guarantees, includes Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in return for a "bloc-free" Afghanistan. The proposal seems to be viewed by Western diplomats more as a worthy goal than as a practical prospect the Russians are likely to agree to.
Nonetheless, from the Europeans' point of view it has several advantages. It reunites the Western alliance in a common policy less than two weeks after the five-power foreign minister talks planned for this week were scuttled by French pique at an American newspaper leak of the plans.
It shifts attention away from the contested issues within the alliance: specific trade sanctions, demonstrative military buildups, and an Olympics boycott.
This shift is especially noteworthy in coming on the day -- Feb. 20 -- that President Carter's Olympics-boycott ultimatum expires.
In concentrating on future Soviet actions in Afghanistan rather than on the West's retaliatory moves, the proposal also places the burden of action on Moscow. It puts on the Russians the burden of proof that their occupation of Afghanistan was motivated by concern about Soviet security rather than by aggressive designs on a politically volatile Mideast and especially on Iran's oil fields.
If the Soviet motivation is defensive rather than offensive, some diplomats are suggesting, then a guaranteed neutrality should reassure the Soviet Union of a buffer on its southern border and allow it to withdraw its forces as it says it intends to do, without loss of face.
In keeping the focus on the area of most concern to the Muslim nations and the third world, the EC proposal also seeks to extend the remarkable Western/third-world unanimity of the 104-to-18 UN General Assembly vote condemning the Soviet invasion. The Europeans view long-term preservation of this shared outlook as one of the most important bulwarks against further Soviet aggression, since an urgent concern about stability by the Gulf states themselves is a prerequisite for any effective Western military support.
The Gulf states, the Europeans reason, would have little incentive to cooperate with the West if the advocates of a harder line within the US administration turned the issue primarily into a superpower showdown. They could have considerable incentive, however, to participate actively in defining what neutrality in Afghanistan and Southwest Asia might mean.
Like the US, the Europeans, including France, are eager to demonstrate that the West has the will to resist further Soviet encroachments on third-world border areas. But they question the wisdom of overemphasizing the demonstrative measures that President Carter has so far stressed. They prefer a quiet military readiness and a reasoned voice at this point.
The EC proposal also allows allied consultations on further specific responses to Afghanistan to proceed out of the limelight. In further shoring up the Gulf and neighboring states the West Germans, for example, have been going ahead with what they regard as one of their main contributions to strengthening NATO: the rescue of economically deteriorating Turkey.