There is today more talk about bringing home some American troops based in Europe than at any recent time. Much of the talk is just griping, intended to spur United States allies to spend more on defense. No one is suggesting the return of American soldiers tomorrow, or even next year.
But analysts as disparate as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Sen. Gary Hart (D) of Colorado are discussing major shifts in the US contribution to NATO's military structure.
Among the main reasons that these proposals are being made:
The US budget deficit. The 350,000 troops stationed in Europe were estimated to cost $134 billion this year.
Lack of troops at home. Some analysts feel the US should allocate fewer forces to Europe and more to a strategic reserve ready to deploy to such world trouble spots as the Persian Gulf.
NATO's nuclear dilemma. The type and number of nuclear weapons needed to defend NATO have been a source of intra-alliance tension for years. For various reasons this tension has been particularly acute recently.
The catalyst for the most recent discussions about the US's NATO role was Neil Kinnock's US visit last week. If Mr. Kinnock, the British Labour Party leader, wins the next general election, a distinct possibility, he promises to scrap Britain's own nuclear arsenal and oust US nuclear weapons based in Britain. This promise does not sit well with many US leaders.
While here Kinnock and his aides did their best to woo the US. Beside the usual media interviews, the Labour leader was guest of honor at a quiet New York dinner with financier Felix Rohatyn and former national-security official McGeorge Bundy, among others. He huddled with Walter Mondale, Edmund Muskie, and House Armed Services Committee chairman Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin.
What Kinnock heard at these meetings, say sources attending them, was this message: Fulfill your promise and there will be a crisis in NATO. Belgium and the Netherlands may follow the lead, and pressure in the US to trim its NATO commitments will inevitably increase.
``Even people who agree with his antinuclear position were telling him that would happen,'' says one source.
The conservative British magazine The Economist, commenting on Kinnock's visit, complained that he was warming the hearts of the many US isolationists who favor disengagement from Europe.
Disengagement, however, is not the issue, according to US analysts. What is needed, they say, is a more rational distribution of roles within NATO.
Dr. Kissinger, in several articles published this year, called for the political and military arrangements of NATO to be ``adjusted.'' Former Ambassador to the UN Jeane Kirkpatrick concluded in a commentary this week that ``surely as our allies rethink their policies and commitments, we should rethink ours.''
This is diplomats' code for ``Europe can afford to spend more on its own defense.''
Western Europe as a whole is richer and more populous than the Soviet Union. Yet it spends a smaller percentage of its wealth on its defense than does the US, says Georgetown University foreign affairs Prof. Earl Ravenal. He reckons that the US spends 7.3 percent of its gross national product on defense, while Britain devotes 5.3 percent, and West Germany 2.7 percent.
This sort of comparison irritates European defense ministers, who reply that they shoulder intangible costs, such as the actual presence of the troops and jet fighters flying over their houses. Altogether Europe accounts for 75 percent of NATO's tanks, they say.
Still, with the US budget deficit now launched into the stratosphere, the heavy US forces in Europe are a tempting budget cutter's target. But as Professor Ravenal points out, just bringing troops home would not save money. Divisions would have to be disbanded, as well.
This is not a policy the Reagan administration has ever hinted it favors. Senator Hart, however, a leading Democratic presidential candidate, has often said he wants Europe to shoulder more of the burden of its own defense. The US military, he says, should concentrate on what it does best, such as air and sea forces, and leave ground forces to its allies.
Sen. Sam Nunn, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee in the incoming Congress, has sponsored amendments calling for withdrawal of troops from Europe. Though he has said the move was intended to get Europe's attention, he is expected to hold hearings next year on America's NATO responsibilities.