Western Europe views the new Soviet arms control proposal as lopsided -- but as an opener that the United States can and should probe in serious negotiations. Europe further welcomes Washington's consultation with allies in framing a response to Moscow, even if it is less than enthusiastic about the US calling an impromptu Western summit three weeks hence as the venue of consultations.
These are the conclusions suggested by background conversations here with senior diplomats from three leading NATO countries.
The prospects now are that three of the four European invitees to the big seven gathering in New York on Oct. 24 will attend: West Germany, Britain, and Italy. French President Franois Mitterrand has declined.
For their part, the Germans, British, and Italians are already gearing up to back Reagan administration moderates in their showdown battle with Washington hard-liners over the negotiations. They have also begun to articulate their own particular interests in requesting that a tolerable nuclear balance in Europe not be neglected in striving for an overall superpower balance. As it now stands, the Soviet proposal is unacceptible to Western Europe, since it reportedly envisages a 50 percent cut in US, Brit ish, and French medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe, but no cuts in Soviet Euromissiles.
A fair idea of what the Europeans will be telling President Reagan at their summit can already be gleaned from public comments here. The desiderata of serious negotiation and strategic stability have top priority.
The British Foreign Office has stated that it hopes the Soviet proposal can be studied seriously and without propaganda in Geneva.
In West Germany, Chancellor Helmut Kohl told television viewers that he is glad that Moscow has made a new offer -- and he added that he will be encouraging Mr. Reagan to do everything possible to negotiate arms control restraints, including limitations on chemical weapons. Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, hailing the new movement in arms control, pointedly praised the original Soviet-American statement of last January that set strategic stability as the goal of superpower negotiations.
In immediate policy terms, the Europeans devoutly wish the US would use the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or ``star wars'') as a negotiating chip, rather than insist rigidly that the program is untouchable. But at the same time they don't want the US to bargain away SDI's post-research phase too cheaply.
And they don't want their own reservations about the SDI program to mislead Moscow into thinking it could split the Western alliance and win a propaganda victory in Europe without itself making necessary compromises.
In line with this the Europeans (in retrospect) are glad for tactical reasons that Reagan has championed SDI so adamantly thus far; SDI seems to be the one threat that has brought the Soviets back to the negotiating table.
The Europeans think that strategic defense is far more valuable as a lever for arms control than it ever would be as a leaky defense, however. And they hope that Pentagon civilian hardliners' dreams about a future SDI utopia will not block the negotiating of deep mutual cuts in offensive weapons in return for agreed mutual restraints on deployment and testing of strategic defense hardware.
The Financial Times, a British daily, expressed the common European view in an editorial Wednesday in saying, ``The US has repeatedly said that its star wars anti-missile research programme will not be on the table for negotiation in the arms control talks. But everybody knows that there can be no meaningful agreement on the control of offensive nuclear weapons unless there is also a matching agreement on the limitation of anti-missile defensive systems. . . . If President Reagan remains as rigid as eve r in his adherence to the sacrosanctity of the star wars enterprise, his presummit summit [of Western partners] may prove very risky indeed for the solidity of the Western alliance.''
One European diplomat here said that this would be ``the crucial issue'' at the Oct. 24 meeting.
More discreetly, West German Foreign Minister Genscher, besides reviving the criterion of stability for arms control, praised SDI this week for its political (but not military) virtues in bringing Moscow back to the negotiating table this year and inducing the Soviets at last to put forward their own counterproposal.
Privately, European diplomats indicate that the key goal of stability would be best served by redefining strategic defense away from Reagan's originial concept of overthrowing the present nuclear offensive balance by attacking enemy missiles from space in the first few minutes after they are launched. Such systems, they believe -- they say ``systems'' in the plural, since they think that whatever the US develops, the Soviet Union can also produce five or six years later -- would put a premium on first-s trike capabilities and therefore be highly destabilizing in a crisis.
What the Europeans would therefore like to see agreed on by both superpowers is a scaling down of strategic defense programs to largely land-based defense against missiles in their final minutes of flight. This, they generally believe, would have a stabilizing influence -- and reinforce the present offensive balance by prolonging the survivability of one's own missiles as a second-strike force that does not have to be fired on a few minutes notice or be lost.
Besides broad considerations of stability, the Europeans are leery about strategic defense for three other reasons. If both superpowers became nuclear semisanctuaries, they fear that European defense would become ``decoupled'' from the US nuclear guarantee -- and that Europe would then become ``safe'' for conventional war.
They are convinced that the enormous cost of SDI would drain money from urgently needed conventional defense in Europe. They also fear that a US SDI program that blocked any agreement on deep cuts in offensive nuclear weapons would revive popular antinuclear movements in Europe and give them a strong anti-American orientation.