A new phase in nuclear arms control is about to begin in Geneva. US and Soviet representatives gather there next week for the first of what promises to be lengthy and cotroversial talks -- with US allies in Western Europe watching with unprecedented interest and considerable suspicion.
This unusual European attention on the meeting to lay the groundwork for superpower talks on so-called theater nuclear weapons is scarcely surprising. For the first time since the strategic arms limitations (SALT) negotiating process began nearly a decade ago, the talks will focus on arms on European soil or those capable of hitting targets there.
This initial gathering in Geneva is expected to deal primarily with the details of starting actual negotiations Soviet SS-20s and other nuclear missiles targeted on Western Europe; and NATO's planned arsenal of 572 cruise and Pershing long-range tactical missiles scheduled for deployment in about three years.
NATO's decision to deploy these missiles was the subject of an intense pressure campaign a year ago and was closely linked to the start-up of East-West negotiations to halt or limit their actual installation.
Having played a key role in getting these talks started against a background of worsening US-Soviet relations, many Europeans are sirously concerned that they may be sabotaged by the drift to the right displayed during the American presidential campaign.
To prevent these talks from disintegrating as SALT II has done, the European allies expect to have to prod the United States to keep the discussions going. Eventually these talks could lead into a new round in the SALT series -- "SALT III."
They also fear that these talks appear to be stalling, European public opinion will react against defense spending -- and especially against the key Western "bargaining chips" in these negotiations and further erode transatlantic relations, which have been strained in recent months.
International analyst Lawrence Friedman of the Royal Institute for International Relations in London, expressed a widespread feeling in Europe recently when he remarked, "It's very hard to be optimistic on this. These talks are far more complex than SALT II because many more systems and more allies are involved."
While some of the initial support from the new NATO cruise and Pershing missiles came from West Germany, that country and other European countries where they would be stationed have been extremely reluctant to accept them on their soil without a serious attempt to negotiate about whether to embark on what is regarded as an important new generation of arms. This European hesitation, especially strong in the Netherlands and belgium, has been a major uncertainty hanging over the NATO decision to deploy.
Now that the talks are scheduled to open, there is also mounting concern on the part of many Europeans that the talks could fall victim to the American elections.
"If Carter is re-elected," wondered a European military expert familiar with US defense and disarmament policies "will we get a born-again hawk? If Reagan is elected, he and the people around him seem committed to even more weapons instead of negotiations."
Many Europeans are deeply disturbed by what they see as a growing shift in American sentiment toward more military spending, distant relations with the Soviet Union, and less emphasis on arms control, all of which could aggravate policy differences between the United States and Europe.
While most European disarmament experts are well aware of the time involved in arms negotiations, they fear that European high hopes for these talks could evolve into impatience and opposition for NATO and its plans to deploy more atomic warheads on European soil.
Both American and European experts foresee that the Geneva talks will be extremely complicated and probably more politically sensitive than the previous SALT rounds, since they will also involve European allied positions.
In forecasting the length of the talks, last December former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance told a NATO audience, "It took 6 1/2 years for SALT II; I'm sure these will be even more complicated than SALT II."