The allied quarrel: consultations are no panacea

Invariably, when relations between Europe and the United States face one of their periodic moments of crisis, there are calls for ''better consultation'' or ''more consulta-tion.''

This happened at the time of the neutron bomb affair, the decision on theater nuclear forces, and the sanctions following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The calls are heard again today in the face of the deep divisions over the Soviet pipeline.

Consultations with Europe are neither simple in execution nor a panacea for our deeper differences. The process is fraught with as many complexities as are the issues.

Begin with the fact that there are democracies on both sides of the Atlantic. A democratic government cannot speak for a nation without internal discussions. This almost invariably means that internal policy debates become public debates. Attitudes of political leaders and ideas for policy initiatives are conveyed across the Atlantic by press and television before they are sent through official channels. Political lines are publicly set and adjustments become ''retreats.'' Other governments feel faced with faits accomplis. The kind of adjustments that might have been possible in quiet consultations are virtually precluded.

Even quiet consultations in democracies are continually vulnerable to leaks. Governments then face charges, even from their own supporters, that they moved before adequate internal consultation.

True consultation means that ideas are exchanged and reactions obtained and considered before final positions are taken. When the process becomes public in midstream, ''exploratory ideas'' quickly take on the character of ''official positions.'' If they have gone beyond national consensus, political leaders are seen to backpedal with all the liabilities such a posture carries.

In democratic governments, there is frequently the question, ''Who speaks for the government?'' Within the US as well as within some of the European countries there may be at least two centers of policy formulation. In the US, the White House and the Department of State have at times conveyed different nuances, if not different views to other governments. The same has been true of the presidency and the Foreign Office in France. Treasury departments have their own channels of exchanges with other countries. Officials in countries are often strongly tempted to establish their own lines across the Atlantic. Clarity and coordination suffer.

In efforts to arrange consultations with Europe, the question has invariably risen, ''With which countries do you consult?'' For many years France would agree to discuss sensitive issues only with Germany, the United Kingdom, and the US. Japan, Canada, and Italy, not to mention other small NATO countries, were effectively excluded.

The creation of the European Community has placed further limitations on what any single European nation can discuss with the US in the absence of a community consensus.

As recent events have demonstrated, summitry among the nations of Europe and North America, plus Japan, is not the answer. In the brief sessions at which the heads of state and government gather they tend to speak to each other in polite terms and to paper over differences in what they agree to release. The situation is compounded if they meet privately without note-taking aides.

Ambiguity is part of the diplomacy of such occasions. Each then interprets what is said in his or her own way. Staff personnel seek to find out what was really said and really meant. It is something of a miracle that such sessions do not produce more of the kind of post-summit misunderstandings the world has witnessed over credits to the Soviet Union.

We have serious substantive differences with Europe, created by geography, by different ways of looking at the Soviet Union, by the more imminent feeling of nuclear danger, and by sensitivity to the power of the US.

In the face of those difficulties, the question of how we consult becomes as important as the issues. The answers are not easy ones. They lie in creating those authoritative channels through which sensitive ideas can be explored and in building up habits of listening to what is said in such channels. Only then can one avoid compounding the substantive differences by inadequate and imprecise methods of communication and consultation.

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