Needed: US repairs in Western Europe. Allied relations now appear to be at their stormiest since the furor over the neutron bomb. France's announcement that French firms must honor the contracts made for building of the Siberian gas pipeline is but the latest sign of European irritation over US opposition to the project. Secretary of State George Shultz will have to call on all his reserves of wisdom and patience to calm the waters and restore harmony.
The pipeline is not the only problem in allied relations, but it has become symbolic of underlying differences between the US and its allies over how to deal with the Soviet Union. President Reagan feels so strongly about the issue that he banned the supply of American equipment made by European firms under license from US companies. In legal terms, the administration may be on solid ground. But, in the larger political context, continuing US efforts to block the pipeline are proving to be counterproductive. Indeed, detrimental.
Surely it is not worth the price of a weakened alliance to try to stop a deal which the Europeans will go ahead with in any case. Nothing must hearten the Russians more than to see the allies feuding. This merely serves their own long-term objective of dividing the alliance. For the West, the danger of undermining European unity must be counted greater than the risk of relying on the Soviet Union for natural gas supplies.
Mr. Shultz's task will be to get all parties back to a more centrist position on East-West trade. There are legitimate concerns on both sides of the Atlantic. The Europeans argue that the US seeks to limit their lucrative trade with the Soviet bloc in manufactured products while it goes on providing grain to the Soviet Union - sales that benefit American farmers.For his part Mr. Reagan senses, probably rightly, that the Europeans are not taking seriously their own pledge to tighten credit policy toward the East.
It should be possible to reach a common-sense understanding. Certainly the West ought not to be supplying the Russians with high technology that enhances their defense. A tightening of such transfers is no doubt called for. It is also sensible to insist that the Soviet Union and its East European clients pay market rates for credits and meet strict financial standards. Why should Moscow be given concessionary terms?
Economic sanctions are a more complicated issue, however. Judging from Mr. Shultz's position in the past, he will not feel comfortable with using trade as a political weapon. Several years ago he criticized the Carter administration for doing just this. And, though he told the Senate that Polish martial law created a special situation in which sanctions had a part to play, he voiced hope this would not happen often. Rightly so - not only because sanctions seldom are effective, but because US firms will come to be perceived as unreliable partners.
In accepting his new post, Mr. Shultz assured the President he supported a tougher posture toward the Russians. But that should not rule out pulling the administration back to some middle ground on the sanctions question and limiting the damage done to the alliance. Mr. Reagan is said to be looking for some way to shift his hard stance on the pipeline. If so, the partial relaxation of military rule in Poland provides an opening.
Periodically the Atlantic alliance seems to go through a bout of friction. It always survives and no doubt will in this instance. The long-term imperative of collective unity always proves stronger than short-term divisions. But it only comforts the adversary when the United States quarrels with an ally like France, say, which has been so cooperative militarily though it is not in NATO.
Quick, Mr. Shultz, the repair kit.