Europe is channeling its misgivings about the United States' ``star wars'' project into urging the US to abide by existing arms control treaties. This is clear in the two-day NATO foreign ministers' meeting in Estoril, Portugal, that opened yesterday.
US Secretary of State George Shultz is being peppered with requests that the US not violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in testing the US Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, popularly known as ``star wars''). There have also been numerous requests that the US continue to observe the unratified second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II), which would technically expire at the end of this year.
Europe's consensus view is mostly being presented to Washington behind closed doors. But in a speech at the Estoril conference that quickly became public knowledge, West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher sang the praises of the two treaties.
He noted that the nuclear age has made ``autonomous'' security impossible and reqires cooperative arms control arrangements to ensure the security of all.
On the eve of the gathering, NATO's secretary-general, Lord Carrington, and the British foreign secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, both warned that abandoning SALT II would hurt the superpowers' arms control talks in Geneva.
Potential violations of existing treaties are much more urgent and concrete -- and easier for Europeans to address -- than the broad strategic philosophy of SDI, a research program into space-based defense.
President Reagan is due to give his postponed report to Congress on SALT II adherence on Monday, and Europeans have noted the continuing rows about this report within the Reagan administration. They would like to influence the White House infighting in a way that would strengthen the US moderates against hardline Pentagon civilians who would like to scrap SALT II and the ABM treaty altogether.
The ABM treaty is linked with the SDI program in that it forbids tests of antiballistic missile (and therefore many SDI) components.
SALT II has a strong impact on the atmosphere of the Geneva arms control talks, where SDI is a central issue.
The main outlines of SALT II have been respected by both the US and the USSR since it was signed in 1979, although the US never ratified the treaty.
Continued US adherence of SALT II will be tested this fall, however, when the Alaska Trident submarine with 24 multiple-warhead strategic missiles begins sea trials. This would put the US over the SALT II sublimit for multiple-warhead missiles unless the US deactivates an older submarine.
The strong interest of European governments in preserving the restraints of SALT II and the ABM treaty arises from their strategic analysis and from the potential for a new antinuclear groundswell in public opinion in northern Europe.
European governments expect that Moscow would benefit more than Washington in the long run from any open-ended arms race. They see this as coming from the capacity of the Kremlin to extract sacrifice from Soviet citizens and the contrary incipient revolt of Congress and US voters against the guns-over-butter priorities in 1980s' American budgets.
They believe that the northern European peace movements are quiet now largely because Washington was moderate in arms control issues in 1984, while Moscow was unyielding. And they fear that a reversal of these public images could revive the huge antinuclear and antigovernment demonstrations of 1982-83 in West Germany, Britain, and the Netherlands.
Certainly if the US were to scrap SALT II and the ABM treaty, it would be impossible for the government in the Netherlands -- the last ally scheduled to deploy new Euromissiles in NATO's 1983-88 program -- to approve this stationing next autumn when the decision comes due.
Moreover, in terms of what the Europeans fear and hope might come out of SDI, they believe that SALT II and especially the ABM treaty are necessary safeguards.
As one ranking European diplomat expressed it privately, Europe would like to see a ``firebreak'' established between SDI research -- which European governments generally endorse -- and SDI deployment, which European governments fear the US might rush into out of fascination with technology, without thinking through the strategic consequences.
The ABM treaty sets up just such a firebreak in banning the testing of ABM components and in prescribing a cooling-off period after either party notifies the other of its intent to abandon the treaty.
Tactically, too, SALT II and the ABM treaty are regarded by the US as legitimate issues for Washington's European allies to express views on -- as distinct from the trickier fundamental decisions about SDI that Washington tends to treat as a US prerogative.
Besides, the US Senate vote on Wednesday urging Mr. Reagan to observe the SALT II restraints -- and a similar position reportedly endorsed by some of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff -- means that Europeans can concur in this recommendation without running the risk of appearing, to the Reagan administration, as soft on the Russians.
This suspicion arises quickly in the administration whenever Europeans express uneasiness about the broader strategic implications of SDI.