The American freeze movement is shifting its focus from nuclear issues to conventional intervention in the third world by the superpowers. Or at least that part of the freeze movement led by its founder, Randall Forsberg, is.
In one of the keynote addresses to the June 17-19 Kiel peace congress, Ms. Forsberg, executive director of the Brookline Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies, gave her fullest exposition to date of the new line.
She pointed out one function of nuclear weapons is backing up deterrence of conventional (as well as nuclear) war. But she adds that as a result, the industrialized northern nations are reluctant to reduce nuclear arms until they can reduce the fear of conventional war.
''But we cannot hope to lessen fear of conventional war,'' she went on, ''while the two superpowers continue to use conventional forces for their own ends wherever they can get away with it - where there is no prospect of escalation to nuclear war, as in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Eastern Europe, and Central America.''
She therefore posited the goal - ''after stopping the (technological) nuclear arms race'' - of ending ''superpower intervention in the third world.'' She argued that this should be done by persuading ''the superpowers that it is in their own self-interest to stop.''
Forsberg's thesis was all but ignored in congress workshop sessions marked by the old wrestling about the ethics of nuclear weapons between more traditional Lutheran Church leaders and more radical, younger pastors and lay antinuclear activists. The congress, ''God's Peace to all People,'' was sponsored by the West German Lutheran Church as this year's conference during the annual ''Kiel Week'' of regattas, exhibitions, concerts, readings, and street theater.
In an interview Forsberg explained the reasons for her new focus. ''I think we are fighting a losing battle to oppose individual weapons systems,'' she said. ''That style of working for change has succeeded at most in delaying something which two, five, or seven years later comes back.'' She gave as examples the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defense, the B-1 bomber, and the MX missile.
''I feel the ground for consensus is too narrow'' in targeting individual weapons systems, she observed, ''so I would like to shift the terms of debate to a more fundamental discussion'' about broad military policy and alternatives.
Forsberg argued that the ''Vietnam syndrome'' of concern about foreign quagmires lives on in the US and can be appealed to. As proof, she noted President Reagan's deference to public opinion in withdrawing the US Marines from Lebanon and his caution in the Gulf.
When asked about coordination between US and European peace groups, Forsberg noted that it could be better. ''We have been on very different tracks,'' she explained. ''We saw ourselves as doing something broader than the Europeans and expected more response.''
But as the American freeze movement ''became known in Europe it became interpreted as a conservative position to accept the large numbers of nuclear missiles and freeze them where they were.''
The European activists, by contraCt, concentrated much more on such issues as nondeployment of the planned new NATO missiles, declarations of no first use of nuclear weapons, and establishment of nuclear-free zones. When the current US congressional proposal for a ''quick freeze'' was applied only to testing and deployment of new missiles, then - in an effort to win the broadest consensus by tacitly condoning the ongoing NATO missile deployments - European activists felt betrayed by their US colleagues.
''The bottom line,'' she concluded, ''is that we are a long way from having an (international) peace movement with a common set of priorities, strategy, and approaches to the Soviet Union and the third world.''