PRESIDENT Reagan is urging his European allies to join him in his campaign against Colonel Qaddafi's Libya. So far all he has gotten out of it is the dismissal of two lesser members of the staff of the Libyan Embassy in Bonn and two from Paris. As with the earlier Reagan campaign against the pipeline from Siberia to Western Europe, the allies have turned a deaf ear to a Reagan foreign-policy initiative. They simply will not join in an anti-Qaddafi boycott, and certainly not in any overt action against him, either economic or military.
This is worth noting as a symptom of a trend.
The NATO alliance is not coming to an end. This is not anti-Americanism -- although there is some of that on both left and right in most European countries. It does, however, reflect a gradual loosening of the ties between the United States and Western Europe which has been detectable from before the Reagan era, but has become more noticeable of late.
The alliance is more nearly becoming in fact what it always was in theory, a free association of independent countries acting jointly for certain specific and restricted ends.
In the early years of the NATO alliance the appearance was of something tighter. It was customary to speak of a new American Empire, of the American Century. The allies were too exhausted economically to be able to afford or pursue foreign policies of their own. And there was genuine fear of the Soviets.
Washington was never able to command its clients and allies as Moscow could. But there was no doubt about who was in charge and calling the signals.
Just as there was never a real basis for talking about an American Empire, there is no real basis now for talking about a decline of the American Empire. A thing that never existed cannot decline.
But what can be said about the existing situation (and should be understood for what it is) is that Western Europe has in fact broken from the US in two key areas of foreign policy.
The first is attitude toward the Soviet Union. Western Europe does not regard Moscow as the wellspring of all evil in the world. It wants the range of Soviet power to be limited, but it does not accept an overthrow of the regime in Moscow as being necessarily desirable. It will have no part in any policy which has as it purpose, as in the pipeline affair, the actual overthrow of the Soviet regime.
Whereas many in Washington think the world would be safer if the regime in Moscow could be overthrown, the West Europeans prefer the known to the unknown. The Moscow regime has the great merit in European eyes of being economically inefficient. Were it to be overthrown, the new regime might be more efficient -- and more effectively expansionist.
There is an emotional content in the American attitude toward Moscow. There is virtually no emotionalism in the European attitude. The Europeans want the power of Moscow restrained, and they collaborate with Washington in doing so. But just as they are thankful that the power of the US is sufficient to balance off the power of the Soviet Union, they are also thankful, although without saying it, that there is some counterpoise to the power of the US. Had they a choice between a one-power world dominated from Washington and the present two-power world in balance between Washington and Moscow, most would probably prefer what they have.
The second big difference is over the Middle East. In everything to do with the Middle East, Washington now puts the welfare of Israel first. The present campaign against Qaddafi of Libya is a form of support for Israel. The European allies are concerned first about their relations with the Arab countries.
It is an oversimplification to say that Western Europe is moving toward a neutralist position between Washington and Moscow, but if the present trend is speeded by further American policies that Europe cannot accept, the time could come when Western Europe could hold a balance of power between Russia and America.