In praise of non-happenings

Let us give some post-Thanksgiving thanks for things that are not happening as we of the Western world head toward Christmas and the turn of the year. Biggest non-happening of the moment is the non-breakup of the NATO alliance. Through most of the past year events seemed to be moving toward just that, a decisive unraveling of the alliance which has probably done more than any one other thing to keep the peace of the world for over 30 years.

Moscow's Leonid Brezhnev must have had that possibility in mind when he planned his recent visit to Bonn. Neutralism and anti-Americanism were loud and popular in West Germany in the days before the visit. NATO leaders were anxious about the meeting. But by the time Mr. Brezhnev stepped off his plane at Bonn on Nov. 22 the trend had been turned.

Biggest turning event was the opening eight days earlier in Geneva of nuclear arms reduction talks. President Reagan of the United States had pulled the rug out from under the anti-NATO movement by proposing mutual exclusion of middle-range nuclear weapons from the European theater.

Thus the mood was one of relief when NATO's defense ministers met in Brussels at the beginning of this past week to take stock of their community affairs. They have their troubles, yes. Biggest immediate trouble is Greece's new prime minister, Andreas Papandreou, who had come to Brussels in person to negotiate and bargain with his NATO colleagues.

And he did just that. He read to the defense ministers a paper which informed them that he had already taken steps to put under ''partial suspension'' the agreement which his predecessor had negotiated with the NATO military high command to bring Greece back into full participation in the affairs of the alliance.

While unwelcome to the rest of NATO the Greek move was no surprise. Mr. Papandreou had campaigned against Greek participation in the military activities of the alliance on the ground that Greece was not getting out of it all it should. He wants more NATO guarantees against his NATO neighbor Turkey.

It is impossible for NATO to satisfy both Greece and Turkey. It has to split the differences between them. Mr. Papandreou has a bargaining position. He is not reducing Greece's role in NATO, but he is suspending the process of reintegration which had been under way when he took over office in Athens. NATO is no worse off than before that event. It does have the sticky problem of negotiating with Mr. Papandreaou who is using his leverage to the utmost.

But that is nothing new. NATO ministers could be profoundly thankful that Greece was for the moment their worst problem. It used to be how to keep France associated with NATO. But France's new President has changed that. France under Francois Mitterrand has become the most pro-American of the West European countries.

Then during the past year there was the new anxiety about West Germany. Could it be held in the alliance against enormous popular urges toward neutralism? The Reagan administration's emphasis through most of the year on weapons, its careless talk of nuclear warning shots in Europe, its bristling posture toward Moscow had frightened his allies in Western Europe.

That case of fright was extreme in West Germany, producing one of the biggest antinuclear, pro-neutralist demonstrations of the era in Bonn. About a quarter of a million Germans jammed into the small Rhineland capital from all over the country.

This past week the NATO defense ministers in Brussels could consider that event a symptom of a recessive rather than an advancing movement. The essential new fact is that serious negotiations looking toward new limits on nuclear weapons are in fact under way between American and Soviet experts in Geneva. Washington has resumed a dialogue with Moscow. Washington has ceased talking about dangers of nuclear wars. Europe has quieted down. NATO continues to be real, and operational.

And, in case you want something more to be thankful about on the list of non-happenings, note that for another week nothing violent nor radical has happened in Poland. Soviet troops have not moved. The Polish government has not passed a law banning strikes. Solidarity has not called a general strike.

At the moment the important central fact in Poland is that the most influential single man in Poland today, the Roman Catholic prince primate of Poland, Archbishop Josef Glemp, is managing to hold back the cmmunist prty with one hand while he restrains the Solidarity leaders with the other. The archbishop is the man in the middle. He is preventing both party and Solidarity from taking one of the many possible steps which would, presumably, cause Moscow to send in its own troops to impose silence on Poland.

And if the survival of NATO and the absence of violence in Poland do not satisfy anyone's appetite for things to be thankful for, it can be noted that the most exciting new political movement in Europe is the movement toward the political center in Britain.

Everyone in Europe is talking about the now well-proven popularity of the center alliance between the old Liberal Party and the new Social Democratic Party. The anti-NATO, anti-European Community, anti-American left wing of the Labour Party has become a relic on Britain's political beaches. The alternative to Margaret Thatcher's Toryism is no longer Tony Benn's neutralism. It is the new center party which believes in loyalty to the Western alliance.

That ought to be enough good news for the season.

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