As the Reagan administration grapples with the outlines of a new African policy, Western Europe appears to be edging more and more into relations with left-wing governments and organizations on the African continent.
Recent visits to Europe by Namibia guerrilla leader Sam Nujoma and Fisseha Desta, the vice-president of the Ethiopian Dergue government, were but the latest in a series of European contacts with African elements shunned by Washington.
Although these contacts so far have not produced any major diplomatic initiatives, differing outlooks on black African problems could cause conflict between European and American foreign policy.
On the other hand, these differing approaches and relations are seen by some American and European diplomats as representing a useful but delicate type of diplomatic "division of labor" between Western allies that helps keep lines of communications open toward otherwise ostracized countries. The diplomats feel contact of this sort might draw these African nations away from their dependence on the Soviet bloc.
The recent European involvements in the African political picture include not only encounters with Nujoma's Southwest Africa People's Organization (SWAPO) and the Ethiopian government, but also contacts with Angola, Mozambique, Guinea, Tanzania, and Zambia and the effort by several black African states to lessen their economic dependence on South Africa.
Both Europe and the United States have also cooperated with the emerging left-wing leadership of Prime Minister Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.
One recent example of the divergent European attitudes toward the international political debate over southern Africa was the statement made before a United Nations conference on possible economic sanctions toward South Africa by the new French external affairs minister, Claude Cheysson. Stopping short of supporting an economic boycott of Pretoria, Cheysson declared, "We must continually and repeatedly condemn, both in international organizations and our personal relations, all those who accept racism."
Although Europe maintains ahigh volume of trade with South Africa and has been loath to consider imposition of trade santions in the fight against apartheid, it has actively supported the black political struggle against South Africa.
An example has been the steady acceptance in Europe of Nujoma's SWAPO rebel force in Namibia fighting against South Africa. These contacts culminated recently with a meeting in London between Nujoma and British Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington during which the SWAPO leader lashed out at what he called the Reagan administration's "sinister conspiratorial efforts" with South Africa.
When Mr. Cheysson was European Community commissioner in charge of relations with developing countries (before becoming President Mitterrand's foreign-policy chief), he actively courted such African states as Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, and Guinea, which in the past have been generally aligned with the Soviet bloc. During the course of those visits he established close relations with the late Angolan leader Agostinho Neto.
On his return to Brussels from one African tour, he remarked that a number of these African states had found the Soviet Union to be a valuable all during their struggle for independene but disappointing in the post-liberation effort to build a viable economy.
Part of his European presence in Angola is continued Portuguese involvement in the country's economic affairs, which some Western experts say is a welcome civilian counter- balance to the Cuban military presence there. Angolan Foreign Minister Paulo Teixeira Jorge also visited EC headquarters in Brussels in April.
Cheysson, who was visited Ethiopia three times since the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie, also pursued a similar policy of establishing better relations with that pro-communist country in the Horn of Africa.
The European involvement in the conflict between Ethiopia and Somalia could become even more sensitive, especially as Washinton reconsiders Somalia's request for military assistance in return for port facilities on the Red Sea.
In late April, former Foreign Minister Emilio Colombo of Italy visited Addis Adaba. Following talks with Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, the Ethiopian head of state, Colombo pledged Italy to become Ethiopia's biggest donor of economic aid with grants of about $500 million a nd credits of $50 million a year.