Kohl and Reagan differ little on policies toward Moscow

West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl has plenty of differences to wrestle out with President Reagan on his March 3-6 visit to Washington. But policy toward the Kremlin is not one of them.

A striking transatlantic consensus, in fact, now reigns in an area that was only recently a swamp of contention.

The causes of this newfound harmony are several.

Most conspicuous, of course, is relief at the successful start of NATO Euromissile deployments on schedule last December - and the failure of the Soviet gamble on public opposition to them in Western Europe.

Less obvious, but equally crucial, are two other factors: Dr. Kohl's soothing relationship with his fellow conservative, generalist, and optimist in the White House, and convergence in American and European tactical judgments about the Soviet Union. These phenomena have been mutually reinforcing.

A review of American and European attitudes at the benchmarks of the succession of Yuri Andropov 15 months ago and of Konstantin Chernenko today is instructive. November 1982 probably marked the nadir, February 1984 the recovery , of transatlantic relations. This was largely because past alliance collisions over Soviet policy have now matured into congruence.

Thus, when Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev died on Nov. 10, 1982, the Reagan administration was still imposing ''extra-territoriality'' on its allies. Namely , applying American national law to non-American corporations abroad, and barring these firms from exporting gas-pipeline equipment to the Soviet Union if any American license was involved in their manufacture. The British, West German , French, and Italian governments were all outraged by a national claim that they would not presume to make on American companies in reverse. They encouraged or (in the case of the British) specifically ordered their own companies to defy Washington.

At the same time, the United States reaction to the new Soviet leadership was cool. To be sure, Washington speculated about a possible new beginning. But it emphasized that a new beginning required major changes in Moscow.

Washington's outlook at this point also included a certain wariness about the policy toward the Kremlin being pursued by West Germany - that of the ''outsretched hand,'' in Foreign Minister Hans-Deitrich Genscher's phrase.

If the specifics of this policy were vague, the direction was at least clear: Jaw-jaw rather than war-war. Keep dialogue with Moscow alive even as NATO proceeds to redress the Euromissile imbalance effected by the new Soviet SS-20s. Preserve as much detente as possible in Central Europe. Keep open the possibility of cooperation as well as confrontation. And don't use the drastic but blunt weapon of embargo for mere foreign-policy (as distinct from real security) purposes.

Washington may not have been as suspicious of fledgling conservative Chancellor Kohl as it had been of Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and his Social Democrats. The West German conservatives had come into office six weeks earlier, after all, swearing loyalty to Washington. They were already putting up the additional NATO ''infrastructure'' funds that the Schmidt government had balked at. And the old shouting matches between Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and Defense Minister Hans Apel over 3 percent annual real defense spending increases were now a fading memory.

Nonetheless, Dr. Kohl's government was beginning to formulate policies that were uncomfortably similar to Schmidt's. New Defense Minister Manfred Worner was turning down flat Washington's proposed doubling of planned Pershing IIs in West Germany.

And Worner's supporting arguments about not inflaming the domestic peace movement sounded to some in Washington like kowtowing to nationalist neutralist sentiment.

Weren't the West Germans soft on the Soviets? Weren't they afraid of the new Soviet SS-20s and ready to pay any price rather than stand up to them? Weren't they being tempted to dilute their loyalty to the West by the chimera of reunification of their divided nation? Weren't they being bribed into incipient ''Finlandization'' by the lure of good East-West German relations?

And weren't the ungrateful Europeans anyway getting a free ride on defense while selfishly trying to preserve their own exceptional island of detente in the midst of global superpower confrontation?

Behind the divergent West German and American approaches lay two different sets of assumptions about Moscow. Both agreed that the Soviet Union was a threat (even if their precise definition of the threat deviated). Both agreed that the Soviet Union was a military giant but an economic and social runt.

From these same premises, however, they drew quite different conclusions.

The Reagan administration, under the strong intellectual influence of Harvard historian and then-National Security Council Soviet expert Richard Pipes, regarded this combination as both a mortal danger and a golden opportunity. It was a danger because the Soviet Union's domestic weakness and lack of legitimacy necessarily drove the Kremlin hierarchy to seek legitimacy in the single area it excelled in - foreign military conquest.

Only when the entire internal Soviet system and dynamics were transformed could there be any hope that the Soviet Union would join the community of civilized nations and accept peace in the world.

This was the antithesis of the European (and the old Nixon-Kissingerian) view of crisis management. Ex-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's and the Europeans' much more modest aim was just to control world crises so they didn't explode - and progressively to divert Moscow from military adventures abroad, by carrots as well as sticks.

In Pipes' concept, by contrast, the US, as the defender of the free world, was morally obligated to enhance crises within the tottering Soviet economy and the world's only surviving 19th-century empire.

At best, this would trigger Soviet collapse. At worst, it would signal the West's continuing disapproval of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the crackdown in Poland - and would keep the Kremlin preoccupied internally and passive externally.

Hence the importance of economic sanctions (other than Midwest grain, of course). Hence the need to advertise America's readiness to fight and ''prevail'' in any kind of nuclear war if need be, including nuclear war in Europe, including prolonged nuclear war. Hence the shrewdness of threatening ''horizontal escalation'' in response to Soviet probes abroad - not just shoring up local defenses in Southwest Asia, say, but starting Western counterprobes where Moscow itself is weak, in Eastern Europe.

Europeans, teethed on limited means and limited interdependent sovereignty - and knowing that Europe would be the first battlefield in any nuclear war - shared none of America's can-do enthusiasm for either hastening Moscow's demise or transforming its character. For them it was enough to preserve a modus vivendi in which neither side blew up the other.

They doubted that the nearly autarchic Soviet economy, with its vast resources and pliant population, could be brought to its knees.

They thought that any attempt to do so would simply let the Kremlin rally Soviet citizens in a xenophobic wave of patriotism. They were appalled by the idea of ''horizontal escalation'' in Eastern Europe and some arbitrary, unpredictable overturning of Europe's hard-won postwar stability.

As it turned out, a West-West showdown was averted as Secretary of State George Shultz got the administration to lift the American pipeline sanctions from European companies a few days after Brezhnev's death.

Kohl got on very well personally with President Reagan, and to a large extent defused Washington's suspicions about the motives behind Bonn's ''outstretched hand'' policy.

In the following year the Reagan administration, partly under the influence of Kohl and other Europeans, twice modified the American negotiating position on Euromissile arms control, making it more flexible both times. In the absence of any compelling new Soviet offer, European public opinion (with the exception of the Dutch) reluctantly accepted the necessity of new NATO missiles.

Kohl carried off the initial deployments in November/December of 1983 with rather less political uproar than many conservatives had feared. The NATO allies congratulated each other.

Still left on the agenda, however, was harmonization of the basic US and European analytical and prescriptive approaches to the Soviet Union.

Next: The Chernenko succession.

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