Getting down to earth after Iceland summit

This has been getting-down-to-earth week here after the stratospheric flights at Reykjavik, Iceland, two weeks ago. The State Department told 50 more Soviets to pack their bags and go home, a housekeeping chore that had been put off until after the Reagan-Gorbachev meeting. Another five were expelled in retaliation for the Soviet expulsion of five American diplomats from Moscow.

West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl arrived here partly to be briefed on what had happened but, more important, to register his hope that President Reagan will put aside Reykjavik rhetoric about a millenial ``nuclear-free world'' and remember in his future dealings with the Soviets that the defense of Western Europe rests on nuclear weapons.

He will shortly be followed by other European leders, including Margaret Thatcher. The British prime minister can be expected to make, if more politely, a point made bluntly this past week by former United States Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger.

``Nuclear weapons provide the glue that has held the Western alliance together,'' he wrote in a syndicated article. ``In the absence of the nuclear deterrent, the Eurasian continent would be dominated by the nation with the most powerful conventional forces. . . . To seek total nuclear disarmament is to seek a goal as risky as it is impractical.''

Along Embassy Row this week, NATO allies read the Schlesinger article, nodded agreement, and were thankful someone had said it. They particularly agreed, in private, with his statement that the Iceland impasse over the US Strategic Defense Initiative ``saved us from the embarrassment of entering into agreements from which we would have subsequently had to withdraw.''

In other words, the Reykjavik experience took on a new and very different aspect this week. Instead of looking like a place where a nuclear-free world was almost reborn, it looked more like a place where several well-intentioned but perhaps not well-enough prepared Western leaders (Ronald Reagan, George Shultz, and company) very nearly got themselves trapped into doing things to the disadvantage of the US and of its allies.

The West Germans had been worried over what might have happened at Reykjavik. They came here this week seeking assurances that Washington will remember that withdrawal of all medium-range missiles from Europe (a goal still being sought at Geneva) could leave West Germany dangerously vulnerable to the Soviets' conventional forces and short-range nuclear weapons.

The West Germans and the British have committed themselves to accept the withdrawal of US Pershing 2 and cruise missiles from Europe if the Soviets will take away dismantle all their European SS-20 missiles. But the West Germans were the ones who initiated that deployment. If the US missiles are going to go away, the West Germans want to be sure that the US will make up for it by protecting their country through other means.

The British will shortly arrive with a similar message. They accept a probable agreement on withdrawal of the intermediate weapons and think the Soviets are likely to separate this from other matters and go ahead with it.

There might be a dividend. Possibly removal of the intermediate missiles would defuse the ``peace movement'' and permit the West European governments to proceed with normal conventional force maintenance. But it must be remembered that deployment of the Pershing 2 and cruise missiles was conceived as the answer to the European worry about being ``decoupled'' from the US. The deployment reinforced the ``trip wire'' concept of the US commitment to Western Europe. Without the intermediates, there will again be the European concern over being ``decoupled'' from the US.

Eviction notices for 50 more Soviet ``diplomats'' is a job considered in Washington to be overdue. The Soviets had overstaffed their embassy here and their consulate in San Francisco beyond normal needs. The Reagan administration is determined to tackle the issue of Soviet spying head on. Besides, the Soviets had more people in the US than the US is keeping in Moscow and Leningrad.

The US has 225 people in its Moscow embassy plus 26 in its consulate in Leningrad, for a total of 251. The Soviets have 263 personnel in their embassy in Washington plus 38 in their consulate in San Francisco, for a total of 301. The departure of the 50 will bring the number of Soviet ``diplomats'' in the US down to ``strict equality in numbers'' with US diplomats in the Soviet Union.

The decision to go ahead with the eviction of the extra 50 reflects a relaxed attitude in Washington about US-Soviet relations. No one seems to be worried about putting any serious new strain on the relationship.

The comparatively restrained initial Soviet reaction -- they expelled another five US diplomats and withdrew Soviet workers previously used for low-level, non-security jobs in the US Embassy and consulates in the Soviet Union -- suggests that Moscow at least wants to avoid further escalations in the ``embassy wars.''

It is a difficult relationship. Tit-for-tat expulsions don't make matters better, but they probably don't make them that much worse. Once the exaggerated expectations of Reykjavik die down, it may yet be possible for more practical agreements to be hammered out.

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