"If I were an American," announced former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt after talks in Moscow, "I would make inquiries" on the latest Soviet arms-control comments.
But if Willy Brandt were an American, he would probably find no shortage of Reagan administration officials willing to feed his passport to a paper-shredder.
For the United States seems to have no immediate intention of making "inquiries," something that would amount to pushing up Mr. Reagan's current timetable for substantive arms talks with Moscow.
But for the Soviets, none of this may matter much. They know that, if they manage not to intervene in Poland, arms talks are likely to begin anyway by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, men like Mr. Brandt, nations like West Germany, and arms-control remarks like the latest ones aired here by President Leonid Brezhnev are all crucial in a Kremlin bid to undercut what it sees as "anti- Sovietism" in the White House.
The idea, as culled from private conversations with Soviet officials, is to encourage natural fissures within the Western alliance on just how Mr. Reagan should handle the Kremlin. Put differently by one Soviet official, this means encouraging "West European pressure" on Washington to revive that slippery animal known as detente.
US officials tend to dismiss recent Kremlin arms-control proposals, revived and alluringly rephrased just about every time a senior Soviet official opens his mouth, as mere camouflage for a continuing military buildup on the Soviet side.
West European diplomats here largely agree with this assessment and resent what they see as Soviet attempts to undermine the Western alliance.
Indeed, some Western ambassadors in Moscow privately vented anger at the way the Soviets handled the recent visit by Mr. Brandt, now chairman of West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's Social Democratic Party and emerging as something of an avuncular, Eugene McCarthy figure for antinuclear groups in Western Europe.
Mr. Brandt was received very much like a ruling head of state. He, for one, seemed to enjoy this enormously.
The problem for Mr. Reagan, and the boon for the Soviets, is that West European democracy is of the parliamentary strain -- that is, West European leaders must chart policy with careful glances at various pressure groups within their legislatures, indeed sometimes within their own coalitions.
And the ups and (current) downs in East-West relations tend to affect Western Europe more directly than the US. West Europe is geographically closer to Moscow. The new, medium-range Soviet nuclear missiles vocally denounced by NATO are targeted at the West Europeans, not Americans,
And West European states, particularly West Germany have much closer economic ties with the Soviet Union than does the US.
Even as US officials muse out loud that detente may have been a failure from the start, the Soviets have been trying to put together what they call the East-WEst "deal of the century" -- a multibillion dollar scheme for piping huge quantities of Siberian natural gas to Western Europe.
West European companies would supply equipment and expertise for the pipeline and, in effect, the Soviets would pay back in gas. But talks have been snagged by Soviet insistence on highly preferential interest rates from Western banks to finance the project.
Various Western commercial sources here now tell the Monitor that Soviet officials seem to be softening their position on the interest issue.
On arms control, Mr. Brezhnev said at a June 30 dinner for Mr. Brandt that the Soviets would halt (the now rapidly proceeding) deployment of sophisticated new missiles in the European part of the USSR as soon as the West sat down for serious missile-control negotiations.
This was the latest rephrasing of a February call for a mutual East-West moratorium on such missile forces, but it omitted mention of an earlier Soviet demand that NATO also halt "preparations for deployment" of new US missiles scheduled to be based in West Europe starting in late 1983.
Mr. Brezhnev did not explicitly cancel that condition. The vagueness presumably was intended to lure the West into making just the sort of "inquiries" Mr. Brandt later mentioned.
US officials, privately, were quick to point out problems with the proposal in any case. They argued that the Kremlin couldn't go on deploying the missiles at the current rate (about one each five days) indefinitely and was probably just trying to get negotiating mileage out of a halt planned in any case.
The officials also noted that even missiles based in the non-European part of the Soviet Union could hit Western Europe. The diplomats also argued that any sign of Western agreement to the offer would amount to an acceptance of sorts of current Soviet "missile superiority," also putting the West in a position where the planed NATO deployment of new missiles in 1983 might automatically cancel any ongoing talks.
Soviet officials explain things differently. "We would be stopping deployment of our missiles," one said, "in simple exchange for talks that are in everyone's interest. The US would simply have to say it wasn't deploying new missiles during the negotiations, something that isn't going to happen anyway until 1983."
Such arguments don't play well in the US. But the key question ultimately is how well they will play in Western Europe, where many politicians are far less than elated at the prospect of basing new US missiles on their so il.