There is a West-West as well as an East-West problem involved in the United States-Soviet negotiations in Geneva to limit theater nuclear weapons in Europe. Resolution of one problem could be the key to the resolution of the other problem.
The West-West problem is twofold.
First, America's allies need to know that the US will not start a nuclear war in Europe. They do not know that now. Many West Europeans are deeply concerned about America's intentions toward nuclear weapons and nuclear war. President Ronald Reagan recently reaffirmed his support for the doctrine of flexible response, a doctrine that sanctions the first use of nuclear weapons - and thus sanctions starting a nuclear war.
Yet the doctrine of flexible response is out of date. The Soviet Union has caught up with the US in nuclear weaponry and could strike back with devastating force. The use of nuclear weapons in the defense of Western Europe would insure its destruction.
Mr. Reagan needs to relieve European anxieties about US policy toward the use of nuclear weapons. On this critical issue, the American negotiator in Geneva would then represent a united alliance rather than a seriously divided one. Mr. Reagan should redefine American policy and make it clear that for the US nuclear weapons serve only one purpose: to deter their use by the Soviet Union.
Second, the defense of Western Europe and the deterrence of the Soviet Union are issues for the alliance, not just issues for the US. Yet the US and the allies are dealing with the Geneva negotiations and limitations on theater nuclear weapons as if they were only a US-Soviet problem.
The proposal which the US has put forward in Geneva, the so-called zero-option, makes no reference to British and French theater nuclear forces. There is no acknowledgement that West European governments share, or should share, responsiblity for deterring the Soviet nuclear threat. There is no acknowledgement that the Soviet Union has already expressed the not unreasonable view that British and French forces should be included in the Western count in any US-Soviet agreement. And in describing the theater nuclear balance, neither President Ronald Reagan nor the Department of State include British and French forces, an unaccountable omission, which skews the balance in favor of the Soviet Union.
Yet both the British and French have formidable theater nuclear forces targeted on the Soviet Union. These forces contribute to allied security, and British forces are jointly targeted with American forces. French forces are not yet a part of this joint targeting arrangement although that may come about in view of President Mitterrand's concern over the Soviet buildup, especially of SS-20 missiles.
Neither Britain nor France want to be parties to a US-Soviet agreement limiting theater nuclear weapons. They want no restrictions on their forces. And President Leonid Brezhnev has declared that ''the Soviet Union does not insist on the reduction of this particular potential.''
But the Soviet Union does insist that British and French forces be taken into account. (In the Vienna force-level negotiations, French forces in Germany are counted as part of the total Western force level but they are not to be limited in any way.) Thus, if the British or French theater nuclear force level went up, the American level would have to go down by the same amount - a not undesirable shift in the burden of Western defense - to maintain overall parity with the Soviet Union.
A reduction proposal which included all theater nuclear missiles in Europe regardless of nationality or whether launched from the land or from the sea might well be negotiable.
It so happens that the number of missiles and warheads in British, French, and American NATO assigned submarines is about the same as the number of missiles and warheads in the Soviet SS-20 missiles now targeted on Western Europe. If the Soviets stopped deploying SS-20 missiles (they now deploy about one a week) and dismantled all their obsolete SS-4 and SS-5 missiles, a rough parity would be achieved between the Western sea-based missile force and the Soviet land-based missile force. Thus, the inclusion of British and French forces might provide the basis for an agreement which resulted in no American increases and substantial Soviet reductions of theater nuclear arms.
David Linebaugh was formerly a deputy assistant director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and now teaches a seminar on ''Negotiating with the Soviet Union'' at Georgetown University.