The results in both the West German and Portuegese general elections are the latest signs of Western Europe's political swing to the right. But offsetting this -- sometimes at government level, sometimes not -- is a continued reluctance among European members of the Atlantic Alliance to increase defense spending or to accept the latest generation of nuclear weapons on their home territories.
Strong leftist or neutralist sentiments within at least four NATO countries -- Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Norway -- have inhibited their respective governments from taking strong stands on defense questions. Now Britain's opposition Labour Party has joined this tendency with its annual conference vote against the placing of cruise missiles on British soil and in favor of unilateral nuclear disarmament.
This sort of thinking on defense issues naturally causes concern among NATO military planners. They worry that if a neutralist trend developed to the point where it prevented the planned deployment in West Germany of cruise and improved Pershing missiles, the Soviet Union would have won a significant victory. It would leave the Russians unchallenged in their present position of theater nuclear superiority in Europe, with their SS-20 missiles and their Backfire bombers.
West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt agreed to accept the Western cruise missiles at a NATO meeting in Brussels last December -- provided his country was not the only one on the European mainland doing so. Italy went along. But internal politics have forced the governments of both Belgium and the Netherlands -- two countries where the NATO planners also want to install the missiles -- to postpone a decision on whether they can be brought in.
Similarly, internal West German politics were behind Mr. Schmidt's attaching a condition to his acceptance of the missiles, for which he personally recognizes the need in the face of the Soviet threat. The condition was attached mainly to mollify the left wing of his Social Democratic Party, which finds expression through its youth section and has chronically been susceptible to the siren-song of neutralism.
The swing to the moderate right shown in the general election result last weekend should strengthen Mr. Schmidt's hand against the leftists. He has increased his majority in the Bundestag -- thanks not to any new intake of left-wingers from his own party but to the gains made by the right-of-center Free Democrats, the third party whose cooperation in his coalition Cabinet gives him his overall parliamentary majority.
The swing to the right in the Portuguese general election found expression in the straightforward gains by right-of-center Prime Minister Francisco Sa Carneiro and his Democratic Alliance, more at the expense of the Communists than of the main opposition Socialists.
The rightward swing in Britain was underlined by the triumph in last year's election of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party. And even if the latest opinion polls show a swing away from Mrs. Thatcher's Conservatives, the opposition Labour Party seems to be undermining its electoral viability by the internecine war on display at its recent annual meeting in Blackpool.
In France, right-of-center President Valery Giscard d'Estaing is similarly strengthened by divisions within the opposition left -- both between Socialists and Communists and between potential presidential candidates within the Socialist Party.
In Italy, now involved in its 40th Cabinet crisis in 35 years, the political center of gravity is still to the right of where it was only a year ago when incumbent right-of-center Christian Democratic prime ministers preserved their parliamentary majority only with the tacit cooperation of the Communists. (The latter are still Italy's second biggest party.) Christian Democrat Arnaldo Forlani, trying to put together a new Cabinet, is unlikely to return to the "historic compromise" formula of making a deal with the Communists. Further, the Socialist Party, under the leadership of Bettino Craxi, has moved toward the center.
Spain, formally outside NATO yet strategically involved in it, has a right-of-center government under Prime Minister Adolfo Suarez. Spain's post-Franco swing away from right-wing authoritarianism never went over to the other extreme -- to the far left.
Within NATO perhaps the most potentially upsetting defense tendency is that within Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Norway. All four have a pre-World War II tradition of being neutral in great-power struggles. And now that old neutralist tradition is reasserting itself -- and finding expression through the left, communist and noncommunist alike.
What worries NATO planners is the possible effect on the bigger NATO members, particularly West Germany, if this neutralist trend deepens and widens in the Low Countries and Scandinavia.