US, Europe: patching the fabric of the Atlantic alliance; Post World War II treaty arrangements now become outdated

The pattern of patching up or pasting over differences between the United States and its European allies is becoming very familiar.

The process is hardly surprising. In geopolitical terms, West and East are at the end of an era in the security arrangements that have for three decades spared the world World War III.

Over that period, there have been shifts in the world balance of power, and the existing security arrangements have become outdated or have been overtaken. But within the Western alliance, there is no agreement on how precisely to replace or revise them. Hence the ongoing patchwork jobs.

There were two such examples last week.

First, West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher was in Washington for talks with US officials. Then, at the week's end, French President Francois Mitterrand flew in rather splendidly in the supersonic Concorde for a three-hour meeting with President Reagan.

But the pasting-over of differences on both occasions is not the only symptom or reminder that we are at the end of an era without any clear blueprint of where or how to proceed in the future.

Perhaps most significantly, both West and East now are operating without either a strategic arms control (SALT) agreement in force or negotiations for a new SALT accord to take the place of the unratified SALT II.

Europeans have been edgy about this ever since the Reagan administration - seen on the other side of the Atlantic as trigger-happy - took over in Washington. But the uneasiness is spreading to certain segments of responsible American opinion.

At the grass-roots level, it has asserted itself in recent weeks at Vermont and New Hampshire town meetings. But it has also surfaced on Capitol Hill. Last week, 150 US legislators signed a resolution calling on the US and the Soviet Union to ''pursue a complete halt to the nuclear weapons race.'' The signatories included Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts and Sen. Mark Hatfield (R) of Oregon.

While this was happening in Washington, the European Security Conference in Madrid was adjourning until November in a manner unsatisfactory to the West. The Madrid proceedings brought home to the West that it had in fact been outmaneuvered by Moscow--at least temporarily--over the handling of events in Poland. This was a sour twist for a scenario originally devised by the West to enable it to exploit to Moscow's disadvantage such upheavals within the Soviet bloc as the recent crisis in Poland.

Yet it must not be overlooked that the uncertainties attending the end of an era are creating problems for the Soviet Union too.

Gone are the days when Soviet ideology had widespread appeal around the world--particularly among workers, the poor, and colonial peoples. Russia's chief weapon today is its military strength.

The aging leadership in Moscow--for all Leonid Brezhnev's satisfaction at seeing his country in qualified nuclear parity with the US--knows that a changing of the guard at the top in the Kremlin cannot long be delayed. It sees the Polish crisis, if contained for the moment, still unsettled. It must have doubts about the rest of the Soviet bloc. It has Afghanistan on its hands. And quietly but patiently, China is edging forward toward that superpower status which the Chinese believe is theirs by right of history, size, and moral superiority.

One of the short-term advantages which the Russian leadership has over the US and the other members of the Western alliance is the closed society within which the men in the Kremlin operate.

As between the US government and its European allies, one of the chronic difficulties at moments of confrontation or challenge with a potential adversary is the different reactions on either side of the Atlantic.

Americans are inclined to draw sharp lines and see things in terms of black and white. They are more used to resolving problems than living with them.

One recalls the days in the 1950s when John Foster Dulles was Secretary of State. To him (and many Americans thinking like him), whoever was not for the US was against it. Neutralism or nonalignment was immoral. Then, as now, there is a great temptation to see every international or foreign challenge as of the adversary's making. (The difference in Mr. Dulles's case was that he saw China as as dangerous a foe as the Soviets.) Europeans, on the other hand, have a more relaxed view of history. They see shades of gray between the black and the white. They argue that there are some problems unyielding to early resolution.

To some extent, one sees the interplay of these two approaches in the differences between Washington and Europe on both Poland and Central America.

Some Americans may see in European attitudes an overly selfish self-interest or an unwillingness to contribute a fair share to common defense. And Europeans must be alert to the incipient movement in the US Congress for a replay of the Mansfield Amendment move of 1970.

Then Senate Democratic leader Mike Mansfield, an internationalist not an isolationist and now Ambassador to Japan, introduced an amendment for the withdrawal of 40 percent of US troops from Europe if the US did not get more support than then seemed forthcoming from its European allies. The Amendment lost by 44-51 in a 1973 vote.

A decade ago, as seems likely now, there is enough recognition on both sides of the Atlantic of the mutual interdependence of the US and its European allies for both to work for compromise rather than a parting of ways.

And the most urgent need of all is probably less compromise on Poland or Central America than agreement within the Western alliance on how best to come to terms with the threat of the latest generation of nuclear weapons. Translated , that means agreement on new SALT talks with the Russians.

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