US Secretary of State George Shultz has begun damage control among the NATO allies after the fallout of the Iran-contra affair and the Reykjavik summit. And, much more tentatively, he has begun to signal Moscow that arms control negotiations may be able to proceed despite the current turmoil in Washington.
Mr. Shultz conducted these related operations on his Dec. 9-12 visit to Europe for consultations with the British, French, and West Germans, then with the foreign ministers of 16 NATO states in their regular winter meeting.
As summarized for the press by Shultz himself and by another senior US government official, Shultz had three main messages for his European allies and his Soviet adversary:
There will be no paralysis of United States foreign policy because of the Iran affair. In the words of a senior official, there is ``absolutely no excessive preoccupation with this issue in Washington in any way that detracts from [the] foreign policy agenda.''
America's nuclear umbrella for Europe will be preserved, despite President Reagan's bid in the Iceland summit to do away with all ballistic missiles.
The US considers its relationship with Europe and NATO to be the ``centerpiece'' of its security policy, again despite US flirtation at the summit with abolishing those missiles that have provided the strongest US nuclear guarantee for Europe.
In the other direction, Europe's message to the US was that it was important to get on with what is doable in arms control. As explicitly endorsed in the NATO foreign ministers' final communiqu'e Dec. 12, this means wrestling out the specifics of the superpower agreement, reached in principle in Reykjavik, on 50 percent cuts in strategic offensive weapons and elimination of all long-range intermediate nuclear forces (LRINF) missiles in Europe, with the Soviets committed to keep 100 LRINF warheads in Asia and the US permitted to keep 100 LRINF warheads in the US.
The foreign ministers also rapped the Soviets on the knuckles once more for requiring constraints on strategic defense as a precondition for any final INF deal.
France, which has vehemently opposed removing all LRINF in Europe ever since the Soviets suddenly accepted this long-standing Western proposal at Reykjavik, demurred on the Euromissile issue by attributing consensus on it in the communiqu'e only to ``those Allies concerned.'' Since none of the Euromissiles in question are based in France, this phraseology exempted Paris from the endorsers without saying so outright. Britain and West Germany, despite their similar preference for retaining some of the NATO LRINF missiles just deployed in the past three years, approved the ``zero option'' in the conviction that the West cannot now go back on its own offer without losing credibility.
Even this much consensus was something of an achievement. The previous week, the NATO defense ministers had failed to mention the zero option at all in their communiqu'e.
In a more serious difference that ranges all the European allies against the US, the NATO foreign ministers eloquently said nothing about the stated US goal in Reykjavik of abolishing all ballistic missiles in 10 years. Consigning the elimination of all ballistic missiles to the vague future was part of Washington's second message - reassurance that the nuclear guarantee remains, despite the Reykjavik sounding.
NATO secretary-general, Lord Peter Carrington, acknowledged European ``anxieties'' on this score and saw the ``priorities'' on 50 percent cuts set in the communiqu'e as a response to these. In his press conference, Shultz formally endorsed Reagan's goal of ridding the world of ballistic missiles ``if it could be brought off'' - but he spent rather more time discussing why he has said publicly that it might be good to keep some ballistic missiles as an ``insurance policy'' against arms-control cheating.
On US policy on strategic defense - which a number of Europeans fear could also weaken the US nuclear guarantee in Europe through neutralizing ballistic missiles - the NATO foreign ministers avoided backing the specific US negotiating position. Instead, they said only that they ``reviewed the US-Soviet negotiations ... on defense and space systems which aim to prevent an arms race in space and strengthen strategic stability'' and ``strongly support these efforts.''
On the third message, the importance of NATO and Europe, Shultz stressed the value the US places on allied consultations. And the senior American official said Shultz assured his counterparts - in an attempt to allay concern about congressional sentiment for bringing troops home from Europe - of the administration's commitment to keep troops in Europe even in this time of budget stringency.
Shultz's more muted message to the Soviet adversary came in his NATO press conference. He said, twice, that the Reykjavik summit had been useful in identifying a 10-year period of non-withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. This was the time period the Soviets came down to in Reykjavik after initially seeking a 15-year prolongation of the treaty.
Disagreement remains, the secretary of state reiterated, over what testing regime would prevail during those 10 years and also over what would happen at the end of that period. The US insists that either side should be able to exercise the right to withdraw from the ABM Treaty and deploy strategic defense.
All this was only a rerun of the known US position. But by disaggregating the points of superpower agreement and disagreement rather than portraying them as a black-and-white confrontation between saving or killing SDI (the US's space-based Strategic Defense Initiative), Shultz left the door open to further negotiation.