Publicly, West European leaders back President Ronald Reagan as he prepares to meet Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva next month. Privately, they voice concern that the summit meeting will be unsuccessful.
Despite soothing words to the contrary spoken to them last week by United States officials in Washington, New York, and Brussels, European leaders still have the impression that the Reagan administration is deeply divided with regard to its approach to arms negotiations with the Soviets. These leaders fear these divisions have made Washington reluctant to grapple with the subject.
Deep, philosophical cracks between US and West European positions regarding the Soviet Union are surfacing again, which do not lend themselves to papering over.
``In a nutshell, Western Europe remains committed to a) d'etente, b) nuclear deterrence, and c) to striking a deal with the Soviet Union, provided it is fair and does not leave the Soviets with a stronger hand, militarily, than the West,'' says one West European diplomat who has followed preparations to the summit meeting closely.
But in Washington, this diplomat says, the same goals are not evident. He says there are some who are opposed to any deal with the Soviet Union, whatever its terms. Some US officials remain committed to President Reagan's space-based defense program, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or ``star wars''), because they see it as a way either to provide the United States with military superiority over the Soviet Union or to drag it into an arms race which could sink its economy.
A number of West Europeans officials, willing to speak on condition that they not be identified, claim that Mr. Gorbachev is going to Geneva with a clear strategy and a willingness to compromise. But Mr. Reagan seems to be without a strategy, heading a split delegation of advisers, and more eager to score propaganda points than to seek an agreement on arms control, these sources say.
``Ronald Reagan's speech in New York last week was for home consumption,'' says one West German diplomat. ``Having been caught off guard by Mikhail Gorbachev's recent initiatives on arms reduction, he tried to change the subject and modify the rules of the game, by linking the talks on arms control to progress on regional issues.''
While people in Western Europe strongly disapprove of Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, they are more concerned with the danger of nuclear war than with the political fate of Nicaragua or Cambodia, says this source.
He goes on to say that ``the peace movement was successfully contained by the British, Dutch, German, and Italian goverments in recent years. Now it may be reignited with Reagan, instead of [former Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei] Gromyko, engaging in `nyet' policies.''
A British diplomat says, ``Gorbachev's recent proposals are a mixed bag. They need a lot of sorting out. But they contain many interesting goods.
``A reduction of 50 percent of its nuclear arsenal, a 60 percent ceiling on its heavy missiles as part of its strategic weapons, and a commitment to not deploy new SS-20 missiles in Asia cannot simply be dismissed as bluff or propaganda. If Reagan appears to be intransigent, no smoke-screening devices will deceive West European public opinion for long,'' this diplomat says.
``Whether the Reagan administration is dead set against putting `star wars' on the bargaining table or is divided about the issue, and is therefore obliged to skip it, is beside the point,'' says a French official. ``Lambasting the Soviets in public will not do the trick.
``If the Americans turn out to be inflexible, or are perceived as such, if they don't match Soviet concessions with some of their own, this will create a lot of uneasyness among West Europeans,'' this diplomat says.
There is consensus in Bonn, Paris, and London that a historic opportunity to reduce East-West tensions and the danger of war may be at hand. They want Reagan to make a strong effort to find out whether Gorbachev's proposals are serious, and whether he is willing to show more restraint in foreign policy than his predecessors.