Challenge for '82: keeping NATO allies together

The news this first week of the Western world's new year is being dominated by strains between the United States and its allies.

It is appropriate. Disagreements within the Western alliance are likely to be the biggest challenge in 1982 to governments on both sides of the Atlantic. And the allies know that Moscow is already geared to exploit them to maximum Soviet advantage.

The current catalyst for the strains is Poland. But several other important and potentially divisive issues lie ahead, including:

* The stationing of a new generation of US nuclear missiles in Europe to offset the Russians' current advantage there.

* The priority to be given to talks on nuclear arms control, for which the Europeans are apparently more impatient than the Americans.

* And how best to deal with the continuing crisis in the Middle East, where the US carries the main burden of safeguarding the oil reserves in the Gulf on which so much of West Europe depends.

On the issues of Poland and nuclear weapons, the two principals in the unfolding drama are US President Reagan and West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. They are due to meet in Washington today.

The West Europeans are postponing decisions on Poland until after that meeting. European Community (EC) foreign ministers met in Brussels Jan. 4 to discuss Poland. They warned the Soviet bloc countries not to intervene in Poland, and agreed that they should aim not to undermine US sanctions against Poland and the Soviet Union. And then they adjourned.

The fact remains that the Europeans generally are unwilling to go along with the US sanctions policy.

Poland's Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski has lost no time in trying to exploit the doubts dividing West Europeans from Americans.

He called in the ambassadors of the 10 EC countries on Jan. 4 and was reported to have asked that their governments not join the US in sanctions. And in perhaps another effort to boost anti-sanctions sentiment, news was leaked over the weekend that Poland had found the $350 million needed as a year-end debt installment repayment to Western banks.

There are two reasons the Europeans and the US are responding to the Polish situation differently: the Europeans' material self-interest, and their interpretation of General Jaruzelski's role.

The Europeans -- and above all the West Germans -- know that they would be harder hit than the Americans if Europe joined in US sanctions. The Europeans are more vulnerable to both trade and diplomatic countermeasures by the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, President Reagan has apparently made up his mind that the general is a Soviet puppet who is doing Moscow's will in Poland.

The Europeans, on the other hand, see themselves as more understanding of Jaruzelski. They do not approve of his imposition of martial law, but they are more willing than Mr. Reagan to give the general the benefit of the doubt as basically a Polish patriot whose main aim is to avoid a Soviet invasion.

This being so, the Europeans question the wisdom at this stage of outside moves (such as sanctions) that could either worsen the situation in Poland to the point that the Russians felt they had to intervene militarily; or make the Jaruzelski regime still more dependent on Moscow.

West German Chancellor Schmidt spelled this out in an interview over the weekend in the New York Times.

Those who know Mr. Schmidt best do not doubt his toughness and his commitment to the alliance. But for the Soviets he is the prime target in Western Europe to be ''softened up.'' In late November Soviet President Brezhnev, a septuagenarian averse to travel, journeyed to Bonn to woo (and perhaps indirectly threaten) Schmidt.

And it was to West Germany that General Jaruzelski sent his deputy premier, Mieczyslaw Rakowski, last week to plead for greater understanding in Western Europe as a whole for Poland's plight.

The Polish visitor conferred with West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher who flew almost directly from the EC foreign ministers' Brussels meeting Jan. 4 to join Mr. Schmidt in Washington for the Reagan meeting. Only the naive would assume that both the Russians and the Poles had not carefully studied the calendar in advance.

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