The most difficult thing to get right in the news this week is just what is happening to the NATO alliance. It has been shocked by President Reagan's decision in principle to take the United States out from under the limits of the 1979 Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II).
This is not going to end NATO any more than did earlier differences between the US and its allies -- Canada and Western Europe. NATO survives. It will undoubtedly continue to survive for a long time. Yet NATO is different today from what it was two weeks ago, because Reagan has taken another step which the allies view as being contrary to their interests.
Each time the US does something like this, the structure of the alliance changes. There is erosion of confidence in US leadership. There is a fresh urge in Western Europe to move toward the day when it might become less dependent on the US, might even become independent in all ways -- economically, militarily, politically.
One sign of the trend was this week's spat between the US and Canada. The US imposed a tariff on Canadian cedar shakes and shingles. Canada retaliated with a tariff on various printed materials and computer parts. The US action was of limited effect. The Canadian response was symbolic, rather than serious. Nevertheless, there is now a mini-trade war between the two.
There are also signs of a more serious trade war brewing between the US and the European Community. The US has imposed quotas on European chocolate and white wine, and threatens more of the same, unless the EC becomes more considerate of American farm exports.
Another manifestation of the longer term trend is in the commitment of both Britain and France to a modernization and expansion of their respective nuclear deterrent forces. The British are building four Trident submarines to replace their four aging Polaris submarines. The French are refitting two of their nuclear submarines to carry multiple warhead missiles with improved range.
If the British and French carry out all their existing plans, their combined total of warheads would put them on the road to being a true deterrent. So far, the two possess token deterrents, not enough without US backing. Western Europe could not yet defend itself. It is taking steps toward being able to do so in the future.
The NATO alliance has been jolted many times. The first big jolt under Ronald Reagan came in 1981 when Washington attempted to prevent completion of a pipeline for carrying natural gas from Siberia to Western Europe. The US government sought to keep European subsidiaries of US companies from fulfilling pipeline contracts. The Europeans resisted and forced the US to abandon its efforts. The pipeline is now operating.
The US bombing of Libya seemed in European eyes to be unwise, unnecessary, and damaging to their interests.
The abandonment of SALT II limits on strategic weapons has shaken Europe as much, perhaps more, because it touches on a sense of their own security.
SALT II put a limit of 1,320 on the number of strategic nuclear launchers permitted to either the US or the Soviet Union. Neither superpower has ever breached that limit. This 1,320 limit was part of the status quo, part of such ``stability'' as exists in today's world.
Now that element of stability seems to be disappearing. Instead of knowing that the Soviets will stop at 1,320, the Europe's leaders must begin to calculate variables, and revise their own plans.
Washington says it probably will not exceed the old limit by much, if any, adding it does not intend to be bound by any arbitrary limit. But what will Moscow do?
Washington's action has converted one element of stability in a dangerous world into instability. The Europeans see no need for such a step; have no sympathy for it; and think that Washington has compromised their security without even first consulting with them.
The important thing is not that the allies have been shocked and shaken, but rather what effect the shock will have on their thinking and planning.
The idea of aiming for a time when Western Europe could stand on its own feet and take care of its own defenses is not novel in Europe. The idea was central to the planning and actions of Charles de Gaulle when he was President of France.
Down to these times, that Gaullist idea has been a minor theme in the rest of Western Europe. But every time Washington does something such as the breaching of the SALT II limits, it feeds the idea of European independence. It is ammunition for those Europeans who favor independence. It brings closer the day when the idea of independence moves over from being a minor to being a major theme in the thinking of the Europeans.
That time is not yet. But it came nearer this week.