The United States is increasingly looking to European and regional allies to help it stem Soviet aggression and provide a protective umbrella over the tumultuous and threatened Persian Gulf. Why aren't the allies doing better in their cooperativeness if not more in their activities?
Differences between Washington and European capitals on how to respond have strained the NATO alliance. Though quite distressing, this is not terribly surprising.
For these strains stem from fundamental differences that have long existed yet long remained covered over. These basic differences revolve around burden-sharing: First, whether it should take a political and economic dimension or exclusively a military dimension. Second, whether burden-sharing should encompass security matters beyond the historic NATO boundaries.
The basic differences also revolve around different American and European perspectives on detente, its essence and its utility.
Detente has assumed a far more concrete and important role for the Europeans than it has for the Americans. For one thing, the Soviet military threat is nearer and seems more ominous. For another, the opportunities for Soviet mischief-making in tense times are more readily at hand in Europe than in America. Chancellor Helmut Schmidt explained during his recent visit to Washington how, since 1975, West Germany has received some 230,000 Germans from the Eastern bloc and how he wishes to avoid any moves which might disrupt this flow.
For a third thing, Soviet economic ties are more than twice as extensive with Europe as with the United States. It may be one of the ironies of our times that trade agreements between the Soviet Union and the West, which were supposed to create incentives for Soviet moderation, may be working in precisely the opposite direction. They may be moderating West European and Japanese reactions to the aggressive Soviet actions in Afghanistan.
As good Marxists, the Soviets have realized the power of economic factors. At the height of the debate in West Germany over whether and how to respond to Afghanistan, Russian economic officials proposed a $11.6 billion deal for the delivery of additional natural gas from Siberia to West Germany. At the same time, the Soviet Ambassador to East Germany granted a rare interview with West German reporters to warn that European detente would die if the Europeans followed President Carter "in slavish obedience." And an official of the Soviet Central Committee told the Europeans that they could not be "for continuing detente in Europe and simultaneously express solidarity with the US policy."
This Russian tack goes against previous Western expectations. For the prevailing view once was that a breakdown of superpower detente would provoke the Russians to retaliate in Western Europe by halting trade, cutting back on family reunifications, and pressing down on such vulnerable points as the Berlin corridor.
Rather, with heightened superpower friction, the Russians have become exceedingly pleasant to Western Europe and attempted to demonstrate that the two of them can push detente, quite apart from participation by the Americans.
They can try, but they will fail. Soon it will be shown that the Europeans cannot handle detente with the Russians by themselves, nor do they want to. Anxieties will rise to the point where all sides -- the Russians, Europeans, and Americans -- feel compelled to reinstitute the superpower dialogue.
To prepare for that time, Us administration officials and spokespersons, such as former Defense Secretary Clark Clifford, best stop chastizing the Europeans and start understanding the limits they feel on their own actions due to their concrete interests with the Soviet Union and their lack of concrete confidence in the United States.