Western Europe finally has its yearned-for promise that President Reagan will resume arms-control negotiations with the Soviet Union. But the Reagan administration is sticking to its tough position on strategic arms limitation talks (SALT).
This double approach has been achieved by separating, more or less, the two main strands of nuclear arms negotiations:
* Those on "Eurostrategic" (or European-based) weapons, which will now come first, although no specific starting date has been set.
* And those on strategic (or intercontinental) weapons, which are being kept on the Reagan back burner.
This is the outcome of the March 31 meeting of the NATO Special Consultative Group. It was chaired by Lawrence Eagleburger, US assistant secretary of state-designate for Europe, who brought to the meeting the latest White House instructions on nuclear arms policy.
The US and its allies place great importance on consultations within the alliance as a step toward resuming US-Soviet exchanges on European-based nuclear forces within the SALT framework, explained one allied official cautiously after the meeting.
The nature of the relationship between the negotiations on european-based weapons and the SALT talks would have to await the outcome of NATO's ongoing review of arms control, the official said. "However, this is not a question that need delay implementation of the our TNF arms-control approach." ("TNF" is shorthand for the European-based medium-range theater nuclear forces).
The US has not yet been willing, however, to set a target date for resumption of Eurostrategic negotiations that were begun at a technical level in Geneva between the Soviet Union and the US last fall. The West Germans, among others, are urging resumption within six months, according to informed sources.
Initially Eurostrategic negotiations were conceived of as the follow-on to SALT II -- so much so that they were dubbed "SALT III" or (as pessimism grew) "SALT II and a half." Now they are more like SALT II (a).
The Western European governments may have some difficulty persuading their publics tht the separation of strategic and Eurostrategic talks will permit serious arms-control negotiations.
NATO's "double decision" of December 1979 presumed American ratification of the already-signed second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II). NATO was to offset the growing number of Soviet 4,400 km-range SS-20 mobile missiles and 4,200 km Backfire bombers by deploying 572 new 2,000 km cruise and 1,000 km Pershing II missiles beginning in late 1983.
But this deployment would go ahead only if intensive negotiations before the deployment date failed to produce mutual agreement on a lower East-West Eurostrategic balance.
Americans were skeptical of the realistic possibilities of arms control at the time, and they became even more so after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Western European governments on the other hand still hoped for mutual ceilings --unsaleable to their electorates without a vigorous arms-control efforts first.
It is the last point that has convinced the Reagan administration of necessity of resuming arms talks. A crucial date for the linchpin country of West Germany will be the Social Democratic Party convention in spring of 1982.
If talks are not well under way by then, antinuclear sentiment at the partyhs grass roots could put considerable pressure on the Social Democratic-Liberal coalition for a unilateral renunciation of new NATO nuclear weapons.
One American source conceded that the West German government will probably "get some flak" about the death of SALT II, which has never been ratified by the US Senate. If anything, this is even more true for the Dutch and Belgian governments, which have yet to win parliamentary approval of their offer to station some of the new NATO missiles on their soil.
The American suggested that it must be made clear that the apparent death of "SALT II" will not necessarily mean the death of the "SALT process."
One high West German source drew the same distinction in commenting, "'SALT II' should now be translated int o the 'SALT process.'"