Europe is eager to be consulted by Washington as the United States now decides whether or not to shift to a ``broad'' interpretation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Its advice will be: ``Don't.''
This is the clear message both of public statements and background conversations with British, French, and West German diplomats and military officers over the past two weeks.
``The federal government's position is to stick with the ABM Treaty narrow interpretation,'' one West German diplomat said flatly. His British and French colleagues seconded him in describing their governments' views as well.
First, that unilateral American reinterpretation of the treaty, and testing of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI or ``star wars'') in breach of the traditional interpretation, could scotch arms control for the rest of this century and trigger a dangerous all-out arms race.
Second, that such a bellicose turn in the West at precisely the time when the secretive Soviet society may finally be starting to open up could disastrously alienate Western public opinion.
Third, that activist hard-liners in a US administration that is disordered by the Iran-contra affair and lacking in organizational discipline might manage to create irreversible faits accomplis that would lead to the first two results.
With the exception of the last point, this broad European view is hardly new. What is new, however, is the Europeans' sense of urgency in expressing it.
After two years of discretion on the subject, Europe has loosed a flurry of appeals since the end of January. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe, and Defense Secretary George Younger in public - as well as West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, NATO Secretary-General Lord Peter Carrington, various European ambassadors in Washington, and others in private but publicized communications - have all made similar points to the Reagan administration.
The thrust of all the representations is that SDI deployment in the early 1990s - which the Reagan administration was reportedly close to authorizing in early February until the Democratic US Congress protested - would be premature and could wreck arms control. The further message was that Western Europe expects the administration to honor pledges made from 1985 on to consult allies before any shift of policy to a permissive reading of the 1972 ABM Treaty - the fallback position now advocated by hard-liners in the administration.
Lord Carrington, despite his reticence about addressing the substance of the issues in an interview at NATO headquarters, did underline strongly the importance of allied consultations. He cited with approval the renewed American promise to consult, made last week by Secretary of State George Shultz, and he noted the concern that ``some Europeans might feel'' that a move to a broad interpretation of the ABM Treaty ``could affect the Geneva arms talks.''
Off the record, a number of other European sources explain this line of reasoning more fully. They contend that American torpedoing of the arms control talks at this point would mean a destabilizing race in defensive as well as offensive systems that would probably preclude arms control understandings - and the predictability they promote in East-West relations - for another decade.
Such a development, these sources fear, could make key segments of politically attentive publics in Europe blame the US for a deterioration in East-West relations, especially at a time when the new Soviet leadership is striving for more ``openness.'' They would then expect a revival of the antinuclear peace movement of the early 1980s with much stronger anti-American overtones.
Mr. Genscher is proposing an active Western policy of helping the Soviet Union to open up economically. He is doing so partly to avert such a backlash, partly based on the proposal's own merits. In a major speech in Davos, Switzerland, on Feb. 4, he argued that this ``could be a turning point in East-West relations'' and that ``it would be a mistake of historical dimension for the West to let this chance slip just because it cannot escape from a way of thinking which invariably expects the worst from the Soviet Union.'' He pointedly rebutted American hard-liners in saying that it would be ``dangerous'' to ``fall prey to the illusion that the Soviet Union was acting from a position of weakness which must be exploited or even aggravated.''