One of the time bombs ticking away for the new Reagan administration in Washington is within the once simple and easy relationship between the United States and its European allies in NATO.
"The United States and the Europeans are gradually drifting apart," writes political scientist Edward A. Kolodziej in the current issue of International Security, put out by Harvard's Center for Science and International Affairs.
A fellow political scientist, William E. Griffith, puts it just as starkly in a monograph published by the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "The West is in crisis," he writes, "a more serious one than at any time since the post-1945 reconstruction of Western Europe."
Professor Griffith, writing in November 1980, adds gloomily: "[The West] can neither agree on [the] nature and seriousness [of the crisis] nor on what new policies and institutions are needed to deal with it."
Now, three months later, in an unprecedented move, four prestigious public but privately funded organizations in the US, Britain, France, and West Germany have combined in putting out a joint blueprint for the policies and institutions which Professor Griffith found lacking.
The four organizations are the Council on Foreign Relations (US); the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Britain); the Institut Francais des Relations Internationales (France); and the Forschungsinstitut der Deutschen Gesellschaft fur Auswartige Politik (West Germany).
Before making their specific proposals, the four organizations offer their own diagnosis for what they describe in language a little less immediately startling than that of Professors Kolodziej and Griffith, as the "the challenges , . . . formidable and often unprecedented," facing the Western nations as they "enter the difficult 1980s."
To summarize and perhaps oversimplify the organizations' perception of what has produced the crisis in the alliance, it is (they explain) a parallel change of balance to the disadvantage of the US on two fronts.
The first of these is what they call the internal balance (between the US and Europe); the second, the external balance (between the US and the Soviet Union).
Complicating this challenging evolution is the West's -- and particularly Western Europe's -- growing dependence for its economic survival (principally for oil) on a third world "increasingly unstable and volatile." Consequently, say the four, "Western security can no longer be limited to events and threats occurring in the NATO region alone."
The fumbling and hesitations within the alliance over proper reactions to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan are cited as an example of how the US and Europe have failed to get their ducks lined up in advance to deal with that kind of situation. Just as important, it is argued, is advance warning to Moscow of how the Western alliance is likely to respond to possible aggressive or provocative action by the Soviet Union.
The obstacle to easy agreement between the US and Europe on how to deal with the Soviet Union, particularly when the latter is in expansive or threatening mood, is differing perceptions on either side of the Atlantic on how to strike the right balance between security and detente. Europeans, the report says, have a more positive feeling than have Americans about the fruits of detente to date.
As a result, Europeans want detente-cumm - security, Americans, security-cumm -detente -- to paraphrase Professor Kolodziej's subtle assessment in a slightly different context in his "International Security" article. The overall point made by the drafters of the report is that detente and arms control are "meaningful only if placed in the context of a sensible security policy."
To that end, their recommendations include:
* The US must assure the strategic nuclear balance with the USSR.
* NATO must go ahead with its plan to deploy cruise and Pershing-II missiles in Europe, while keeping open the possibility of talks with Moscow on arms control in the European theater.
* NATO members must fulfill their 1977 pledge of a 3 percent yearly increase in defense spending.
* The US must raise the caliber and number of its military personnel -- even if that means "a return to some form of compulsory nondiscriminatory military service."
* In the Middle East, the availability of Western forces for deployment in the region to ensure that Moscow knows in advance it cannot risk an aggressive move in the region without the possibility of superpower confrontation.
* Active European military participation with the US on the ground and at sea in the Middle East.
* Revitalization of the Arab-Israel peace process.
* Encouragement to the liberation movement in Afghanistan, while working for a nonaligned Afghanistan in the event of Soviet withdrawal.
* Recognition that the maintenance of Pakistan's security should be an important part of Western security.
So much for the policy recommendations. The study has two main institutional proposals to improve allied planning and coordination ahead of time. They are:
1. The widening of the agenda of the yearly summit meetings of the noncommunist world's seven leading economic powers to include systematic discussion of broad geopolitical concerns and security matters. The seven include Japan, which shares the other six's interest in the Middle East and other regional problems.
2. The establishment of small groups of "principal nations" to deal with regional problems as they arise, membership of each group varying according to the issue at hand and linked to the capacity and responsibility for action. The core group, the report projects, "will usually include the US , Britain, France, Germany, and Japan."