The West Europeans are deeply concerned that the Iran fiasco may destroy President Reagan's authority and leave United States foreign policy rudderless for the crucial next two years. But at the same time, they are heaving a collective sigh of relief that George Shultz appears to be staying on as US secretary of state.
Asked in an interview about the importance to Europeans of keeping Mr. Shultz in office, the NATO secretary-general, Peter Carrington, eloquently looked toward heaven and made an imploring gesture.
More explicitly, a European ambassador stated, ``Here at NATO headquarters everybody is glad that Shultz is going to stay.''
And a West German diplomat commented that if you remove Shultz, ``you remove the man who has the most competence and experience [in the Reagan administration in foreign policy]. Shultz understands East-West relations.''
Concurring in his colleagues' judgment, a British diplomat noted, ``If he goes, everything goes.'' And he continued, speaking of the aftermath of the Iran adventure in Washington, ``It's not over yet. It's just going down, down, down.''
For Europeans perhaps even more than for Americans, the six weeks since the Iceland summit have been an emotional roller coaster. Before the summit, Europeans were generally concerned that the Reagan administration might be too rigid in superpower negotiations and insist on preserving an unfettered Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI or ``star wars'') at the cost of killing the best opportunity for comprehensive arms control in the nuclear era. In the days after Iceland, by contrast, the Europeans were alarmed by Mr. Reagan's impulsive summit target of abolishing all ballistic missiles in 10 years; for them this meant a casual willingness to give up the nuclear umbrella Washington has held over Europe for the past four decades - and to abandon Europe to the mercies of Soviet conventional superiority.
For Europeans, who attach supreme importance to stability and predictability, all this was uncertainty enough. But worse came with the revelations about secret, clumsy American arms shipments to Iran, with money siphoned off to the Nicaraguan contra rebels. At this point Europeans are less disturbed by the apparent hypocrisy of the administration's constant pressuring of Europeans not to deal with Mideast sponsors of terrorism - or by the apparently illegal diversion of funds to finance what Europeans tend to regard as an unnecessary American obsession in Latin America - than by the threatened disintegration of the Reagan administration in its final years. They recall the pattern of the Johnson administration (over Vietnam), the Nixon administration (over Watergate), and the Carter administration (over the hostages in Iran).
This specter of disintegration is all the more distressing, since the quality Europeans have valued most in Reagan has been his phenomenal ability to restore American self-confidence.
``Now begins the danger of a President that loses his authority; then you have no policy at all,'' a West German official summarized.
Much more diplomatically, Lord Carrington stated, ``We like to see your president very acceptable and in charge of the administration.''
The West German official spelled out some common European concerns. He was disturbed by what seemed to him ``total neglect of any needs of NATO'' in the American flirting at Iceland with forfeiting nuclear deterrence of conventional war in Europe. European views on the importance of the nuclear deterrent - voiced by European defense ministers at a NATO meeting in October and by West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in hermid-month visit to Washington - reintroduced some healthy caution into the American approach, he thought. The recent backtracking to a goal of zero ballistic missiles, stated by Richard Perle, assistant secretary of defense, in congressional testimony, and in remarks by President Reagan himself, seemed not too threatening, since that goal is a long way from realization and is hardly an immediate policy issue.
Nonetheless, the official felt that the post-Iceland ``crisis of confidence'' in the American ``extended deterrence'' (extension of the American nuclear deterrent to prevent even lower-level conventional war in Europe) is different in kind from the periodic crises of confidence in nuclear deterrence in past decades. One reason for this is the growing perception, in a world of rough superpower nuclear parity, that nuclear weapons are useful only for deterring other nuclear attacks. Another reason, the official suggested, is the shock the British foreign-policy establishment in particular received from Iceland, and a growing conviction in London - despite the long ``special relationship'' between Washington and London - ``that you can't really tie Britain to an American policy which is unpredictable.''
In this whole shifting context, the West German official expressed particular concern about how the Reagan administration will play the relationship between SDI and arms control. He saw SDI as a powerful lever to effect the kinds of deep cuts in strategic offensive weapons that the Soviets tentatively offered at the Iceland summit. This would also stabilize the East-West nuclear standoff and make political confrontation less dangerous.
However, ``the danger is, one cannot get something for it if this trump card is gone,'' he suggested. He feared that Washington would not play this trump card until it no longer holds any worth - until after a Democratic Congress and decay in Reagan's authority may have killed SDI in the US.
If that happens, he thought, the West would end up neither with arms control and a lessening of the dangers of confrontation, nor with SDI. But the Soviets would go on with their own strategic-defense program - and with the loss of American nuclear deterrence for other reasons, this would threaten Europe with political intimidation backed by Soviet superiority in conventional arms on the continent.
In this connection it would be a mistake to underestimate Soviet power in the world because of Moscow's economic weakness, he said. Soviet military power is still formidable, and either premature forfeiture of nuclear deterrence by the West, or forfeiture of the chance to use arms control to reduce the risks of a military clash, could invite Soviet blackmail based on conventional superiority.
What this official hopes for instead is a more gradual and managed transition toward less nuclear reliance over the remaining years of this century. ``The longer we can prolong extended deterrence, the better, because in the long run the Soviets will slip.... It's a system that cannot maintain being a world power.''