American-European relations probably never were as bad as some commentators thought last year. (Surely the honor of being ''the worst crisis in NATO history'' should be reserved for Charles de Gaulle's withdrawal of France from the military alliance in the 1960s.)
But relations were bad enough to raise diplomatic eyebrows quite high. And it took the re-election of West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl this month to bring them back to normal levels.
Dr. Kohl's fervent loyalty to President Reagan and the Americans does not by any means end disputes between NATO's two linchpin allies. But it should keep the various military and economic differences from magnifying each other to an emotional intensity that could do fundamental damage to bilateral relations or to the overall US-European alliance.
That is, on the West German side Dr. Kohl will now bear the full brunt of antimissile activism without trying to mediate somehow between this sentiment and the Americans. And on the American side, Washington will trust Dr. Kohl in a way it did not trust West Germany's Social Democrats.
This means the US and West German governments can focus all their energies on resolving their continuing differences of interest in a calm, pragmatic fashion, without being diverted by extraneous suspicions and resentments. In this ''year of the missile'' this is a great advantage, indeed.
But first, a little history, centered on the critical biennial years of 1977, 1979, and 1981.
In 1977 the Soviet Union began deploying a highly accurate three-warhead mobile Euromissile called the SS-20. In 1979 NATO countered with its own ''two-track'' Euromissile decision, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and the US refused to ratify SALT II. In 1981 President Ronald Reagan took office and Poland declared martial law.
The interplay of these events had unfortunate consequences, both for American-West German and for American-European relations.
The SS-20 posed a threat to Western Europe that differed qualitatively from that of its two-decades-old predecessors, the SS-4 and SS-5. Its 5,000-kilometer range enabled it to reach any point in Europe. Its precision made it ideal for destroying specific military targets (and not just inaccurate ''busting'' of cities). Its speed made defense against it impossible, while its mobility kept the SS-20 itself invulnerable.
NATO - which had had no nuclear missiles in Europe able to reach the Soviet Union since Washington pulled its Jupiters out of Turkey after the Cuban missile crisis - had nothing comparable.
In the old days of American nuclear superiority in strategic (intercontinental) nuclear weapons this disparity would not have mattered so much.
To be sure, NATO had for two decades based its defense against the much stronger Soviet-Warsaw Pact conventional forces on NATO superiority in theater nuclear weapons. That superiority was now turning into inferiority. More important, however, the ultimate guarantor of Europe's security had always been the threat that the US would retaliate for any Soviet invasion of Europe by shooting its ICBMs at Moscow. The Kremlin clearly would not risk such destruction of itself. Therefore ''deterrence'' - war prevention - reigned: The Russians would never attack Europe.
By the 1970s, however, the Soviet Union had built up its own strategic nuclear forces to ''parity'' with the US. Any American nuclear strike on the Soviet Union, retaliatory or not, would unleash an equally devastating Soviet strike on the US. The question arose of who might be deterred most in such a balance.
Would an American president really press the strategic button that would destroy the US as well as the Soviet Union, just to avenge a ravished Europe? No , said a man who should know, ex-presidential security adviser and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
And if that was so, Dr. Kissinger went on, and if Moscow now had both conventional and theater nuclear superiority in Europe, how much was left of deterrence in Europe? What was to prevent the Soviet Union from launching an attack on the first level of conventional weapons, while neutralizing NATO's second level of theater nuclear weapons with its own superior theater nuclear weapons and, on the third level, neutralizing American strategic weapons with its own equal strategic weapons?
Or, more to the point, what was to prevent Moscow from threatening such an attack and thus blackmailing Europe into subservience?
Actually, in an age of unimaginable nuclear destruction all around, there was quite a lot of deterrence left. Kissinger's thesis was far from universally accepted in the West. The implications did trouble NATO, however. In particular, they troubled West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl rather more than US President Jimmy Carter.
In the upshot, NATO agreed on measures to counter the SS-20 and, it was hoped , restore greater stability to deterrence. It would in the future deploy 108 single-warhead Pershing II missiles in Europe that would present roughly the same sort of threat to the Soviet Union that the 670 (early 1983 figures) SS-20 warheads presented to Europe; it would also deploy 464 much slower cruise missiles in Europe that would require the Soviet Union to make an expensive overhaul of its anti-air defense system.
The first few Pershing and cruise missiles would be installed in West Germany , Britain, and Italy by the end of 1983, NATO further decided - unless there was a prior East-West Euromissile arms control agreement. This was the ''second track'' of negotiation. To this end talks between the US and the Soviet Union opened in Geneva in the fall of 1981. They are now entering their decisive phase.
But the climate has changed in the three years since that NATO decision was made. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 made Americans feel that they had been suckers in detente, that the Soviet Union was bent on expansion and on cutting off the West's oil supplies in the Mideast, and that the West had to be tough with Moscow. The US refused to ratify the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty.
This mood also led to the election in 1980 of a new American president on a platform of standing up to the Russians, restoring US strategic superiority, and - if various administration spokesmen were to be believed - preparing to fight (and not just deter) a nuclear war.
This dramatic swing in Washington's thinking scared the wits out of the Europeans, especially since some administration spokesmen casually spoke of fighting that prospective nuclear war in Europe. Within a few months the concern here that Europe was being too little protected shifted to a concern that it was being protected too much and too belligerently by the Americans - and that the Reagan administration really didn't want arms control.
The antinuclear peace movement - which had been dormant since the 1950s - revived spectacularly. The new NATO missiles came to be viewed by many young Europeans in particular as a deliberate threat to the Soviet Union rather than a defense of Europe. Hundreds of thousands of protesters against the new NATO Euromissiles and against American policy marched in Bonn, Amsterdam, and London.
As the early Reagan administration nuclear rhetoric mellowed, European governments concluded that Washington was, in fact, not aiming for an impossible restoration of nuclear superiority and was not seeking nuclear war. And they continued to think that something still had to be done about the SS-20s: Either the new NATO Euromissiles would have to be deployed, or else - preferably - the prospect of their deployment would have to be so real that Moscow would cut back its SS-20s to buy off that deployment.
The peace movements emphatically did not share their governments' evolution of thinking. Nor did the left wing of West Germany's Social Democratic Party. Public opinion floundered somewhere between the opposing views of the governmental and peace movement elites, with most voters uneasy about the new missiles and hoping against hope that something would turn up to make them unnecessary.
As chancellor, Schmidt's method of coping with these several gaps was to try to bridge them personally. Talking to Washington and Moscow, he kept prodding the two superpowers to open arms control talks - which they did, despite visible reluctance on both sides. Talking to peace activists, he honored their concern and confessed his own fears about the risk of nuclear war.
Talking to the left wing of his own party, he cajoled and harangued the dissidents into supporting both of NATO's two tracks - and postponing any final party judgment until the negotiations could be reviewed in the fall of 1983.
His object was to avoid polarization. As he kept telling America, any government that simply overrides and destroys its domestic consensus to get deployments cannot in the end sustain those deployments. This caution would apply anywhere; it applies with special force to a land on the East-West faultline that is already playing host to the world's largest number of nuclear weapons per capita.
Washington already acknowledges this truism as it applies to Americans. After the citizens of sparsely populated Utah (17 people per square mile) rejected the MX, it is highly unlikely federal officials would ever attempt to introduce into the heavily populated New York-Washington-Philadelphia triangle even the number of nuclear warheads now deployed in Germany. There are already 4,000 warheads in Germany, which has a population density of 640 per square mile.
Yet when this same political caution manifested itself in West Germany, Washington feared that it signaled a weakening commitment to the Western alliance.
After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, West Germany was more ready to go along with parts of the stiff US response than some other European countries were. (Bonn, unlike London and Paris, boycotted the Moscow Olympics.
Bonn put great store in a united West European foreign policy, however, and it subordinated public support of the US to behind-the-scenes consensus-building of a firm joint European statement that the Soviet invasion was unacceptable.
At the same time, Bonn did have reservations about America's response. It thought that economic embargoes are historically ineffective in peacetime and should be reserved for emergency prewar acts (or at least specific levers toward concrete policy goals) rather than wasted as an unfocused gesture of anger. It thought that East-West dialogue was especially urgent in times of crisis, and that it was folly for the Americans to refuse to speak with the Russians at high level.
Bonn worried as well about the vehemence of the latest pendulum swing in the US from overoptimistic hopes for detente in the '70s (when Europe continued with steady defense increases, while US defense spending dropped) to America's categorical new condemnation of detente as a Soviet fraud.
It feared from the rhetoric and actions accompanying creation of the Rapid Deployment Force that Washington was now seeking military solutions for political problems in the volatile Mideast, drawing down European forces in the process.
To an America that was still reeling from Iran's hostage-taking of Americans, the European and especially West German attitude smacked of complacency or worse toward Soviet aggression. Washington officials charged the Europeans with caring more about export orders to the Soviet Union than about civilized international behavior.
Washington columnists accused the Europeans of maneuvering for a ''divisible detente'' that would blithely preserve ''business as usual'' in Europe while leaving America alone to police the rest of the globe against Soviet expansionism.
American suspicions of Western Europe grew in the wake of the Soviet-West European gas pipeline deal of November 1981 and the Polish declaration of martial law in December 1981. Washington first barred American companies from exporting oil and gas technology to the Soviet Union, then in June of 1982 unexpectedly extended this ban to European subsidiaries and licensees of American companies.
The Europeans interpreted this as an American waging of economic war on the Soviet Union with the unrealistic and dangerous aim of compelling change in the Soviet domestic system before dealing with Moscow diplomatically. They further deemed the American sanctions against European countries a violation of allies' sovereignty. The Reagan administration reciprocated by regarding the Europeans, especially the West Germans, as fainthearted.
That particular quarrel has been buried. Secretary of State George Shultz lifted the sanctions last November, in return for a European promise that went slightly further than last May's Versailles economic summit promise to study the East-West trade and security relationship and to coordinate Western policy on it.
This cleared the way for a new beginning in US-European relations at the same time as the October accession of conservative Helmut Kohl to the Bonn chancellery cleared the way for a new beginning in US-West German relations. And the West German election's fresh four-year mandate for Dr. Kohl now allays lingering American suspicions that Bonn might in the end not implement NATO deployments.
The new slate does not remove all potential differences, of course. Even this chancellor cannot afford prolonged civil strife over missile stationing. To avoid such strife he must have proof of serious American interest in arms control and willingness to compromise. And it is not yet clear how much a Republican administration in Washington inclines toward meeting this political need of fellow conservatives in West Germany as well as Britain.
American flexibility in the arms control negotiations - and not the scheduled deployment of NATO missiles per se - is thus the burning issue in US-European relations now. At this point all NATO governments due to take new missiles in December of this year are fully committed to doing so. But to make this politically feasible, they need to demonstrate to their publics that the US really is striving for arms control in the next critical 10 months of negotiations.
If Europeans were in fact to be persuaded of Washington's bona fidesm, then the secondary issues of any NATO ''no first use'' nuclear policy and the level of American forces in Europe would be far easier to resolve.
Any agreement between East and West on Euromissile ceilings would increase both public and governmental confidence in stability and deterrence. Alternatively, any arms control failure that was clearly the result of Soviet rather than American stonewalling would make nuclear and overall security issues less divisive among European publics - and therefore more amenable to resolution by governments.