Helmut Schmidt has made it abundantly clear in public (as has the United States in private) that the West German chancellor cannot negotiate for the Western alliance as a whole. But if the Soviets are going to show some flexibility, Mr. Schmidt would be the likely person for them to signal this to.
The reason is threefold.
First, Chancellor Schmidt's June 30 and July 1 meetings with Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev in Moscow will be the first by a Western leader of alliance-wide stature since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. (French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing saw Mr. Breznev briefly in Warsaw a month ago, but he sprang that visit on his allies without any prior coordination, and he met Mr. Brezhnev more in a display of French independence than of alliance solidarity.)
Second, Mr. Schmidt goes to the Soviet capital backed by a unified Western (including Japanese) position. This position was finally worked out in the series of alliance meetings culminating in last week's "big seven" Venice summit and NATO foreign ministers' meeting in Ankara, Turkey.
The big seven reiterated their demand for total withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. One West German diplomat suggested that this and the Venice Carter-Schmidt reconciliation should destroy any Soviet illusions that NATO can be split on Afghanistan or made to reverse its decision to procure new nuclear weapons.
At West German initiative, however, the tough Venice statement on Afghanistan was phrased not in terms of an East-West confrontation, but as a common demand with Islamic nations in support of nonalignment.
In other moves away from East-West polemics, Mr. Carter talked after Venice of a possible "transitional arrangement" in Afghanistan, and a White House adviser acknowledged the Soviet Union's "legitimate security interests" there. The NATO foreign ministers also repeated their nuclear arms-control offer.
Together, these formal and informal statements give Mr. Schmidt a position in Moscow that combines the American determination to stand firm against aggression with the European determination to press ahead with arms control.
The third factor that makes Chancellor Schmidt a likely partner for any Soviet display of diplomatic flexibility is just the reverse of the newly hammered out unity of the Western alliance. It is the very dissension within the alliance that was so conspicious after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan -- and that the Russians could hope to rekindle by a compromise gesture that might entice the Europeans, but he viewed as a trap by the Americans.
Whatever Soviet motivations might be, any signs of flexibility will be treated seriously by the West Germans, West German diplomats make clear. They hope that the slight hints of give on both European theater nuclear weapons and Afghanistan might be enlarged upon.
On negotiating limits to long-range theater nuclear weapons, West Germans hope that the Russians are by now uncomfortable with the isolation of their position of demanding unacceptable preconditions. After NATO decided last December to counter the new Soviet mobile SS-20 missiles and Backfire bombers by deploying comparable weapons beginning in 1983, Moscow said it would not negotiate unless NATO annulled this decision or suspended its implementation.
For some time the Russians have not repeated this formula, however, but have shifted to a less adamant statement. They now say they are ready to discuss SALT III (which is to focus on European long-range theater nuclear forces) -- but only after the stalled SALT II treaty is ratified by the US Senate. To this the West Germans respond that of course SALT III can only follow SALT II -- but that the issues involved are so complex that exploratory talks should begin well before the formal negotiations.
On Afghanistan, West Germans want to probe the possibility that the Soviet announcement of a limited troop withdrawal could turn into a sign of flexibility. They are wary that troops being withdrawn are unsuited to Afghan mountain guerrilla warfare. They regard the Soviet announcement as aimed primarily at setting an optimistic stage for the Soviet Central Committee plenum -- to portray the Afghan war as going so well that troops could be withdrawn.
Nonetheless, the West Germans note with interest the Soviet suggestion that the tank and missile crews are the very troops that the West should want out of Afghanistan. They note as well Pravada's allegation that Western Europe is greeting the withdrawal more positively than the US.
If the Russians want to encourage more positive reaction, then the West Germans would expect them to indicate that the limited withdrawal could lead to complete withdrawal.