US-SOVIET negotiations to scrap medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe have produced some bizarre reactions in Western Europe. After the Reykjavik superpower summit last October, for the first time the allies tried to slow down United States arms control efforts, not speed them up. More recently, they argued that medium-range missiles could not be removed if West Germany, in particular, remained vulnerable to Soviet short-range missiles. But now that the Soviets have proposed to scrap these weapons, too, the allies suddenly see new virtue in them. What is going on?
It is tempting to see European to-ing and fro-ing as feckless. Whenever the US takes a nuclear decision or wants to change allied doctrine, the allies get nervous and complain. They also complain whenever the US and the Soviet Union are at each other's throats. If the US President talks about an ``empire of evil,'' Europeans scream bloody murder and charge the Americans with mismanaging East-West relations. But when Moscow and Washington are having cozy chats - as they are doing now - the Europeans charge that the US is making decisions vitally affecting their future over their heads and potentially at their expense.
The allies clearly do not love the bomb. The alliance struggled politically for five years to deploy the Euromissiles as a balance to Soviet SS-20 rockets. The antinuclear movement flourished and has even led two major political parties - Labour in Britain and the Social Democrats in West Germany - to adopt strongly antinuclear platforms.
Yet when the US negotiates with the USSR so that the Euromissiles can be removed, new caterwauling begins. And when the US suggests that its allies increase spending on conventional defense - so that there will be less need to rely on nuclear weapons - the crying begins: This is not possible, it is too expensive, the manpower is not available. These complaints come despite the fact that no West European country spends as much on defense, as a percentage of national income, as does the US.
Maybe, serious critics are saying, US troops should come home so the Europeans will be forced to provide for themselves.
This is all compelling stuff. But wait a minute. It's not taking place in a vacuum, without a history, without reason. Indeed, there is good reason for European anxiety, even beyond the normal sniffling that takes place whenever the US begins tinkering with nuclear issues.
Put simply, for more than three decades, it has been clear to every serious analyst that the USSR has strategic military advantages that Western Europe could be sure of offsetting only at far greater cost - in materiel and manpower - than is being borne now. It has been clear that there is little value in increasing the risks of a ``conventional'' war when that would mean destruction on the order of World War II. Deterring Soviet attack through the commitment of nuclear weapons is required - and this means US nuclear weapons, or the West Germans will want their own. And it has been clear that the US gains great political, material, and psychic benefits from making this nuclear commitment and keeping troops in Europe. These benefits include the assurance that any conflict with the USSR would be fought first on European and not US soil.
The latest controversy began at Reykjavik. In one weekend, the President of the United States offered to bargain away so many nuclear weapons that, suddenly, it appeared that he was prepared to jettison the US capacity to honor its nuclear commitment to European security. This would have been the most profound US strategic retreat from the Continent since 1919. It would have affected US security as decisively as Europe's.
Wiser heads pulled the President back from this particular brink. But the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, shrewdly tempted Ronald Reagan on Feb. 28 by offering to negotiate away Euromissiles without touching Reagan's cherished Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). This was a welcome plum. It came at the depths of the Iran-contra scandal, when Reagan needed to show some foreign policy leadership and get a success. The proposal did not scandalize the Pentagon, which has its sights on the bigger stuff of SDI and intercontinental weapons. And it permitted the President some arms control without coming to terms with the strategic future of the US. That future is not about Euromissiles, but is represented by SDI and its threat to change - at great risk - the basic equations of the nation's security.
European complaining, therefore, is not about how many Euromissiles have to dance on the head of a pin. It is not about abstruse calculations concerning ``rungs'' on the ``escalation ladder.'' Instead it is about whether the US is turning inward, toward a new isolationism. It is about whether US leaders, including the President, have a basic grasp of US strategic issues and interests. It is about whether the administration is prepared to deal seriously with the overarching US-Soviet strategic relationship - waking up from its SDI pipe dream - rather than looking for a dubious quick trick over Euromissiles.
These concerns are not trivial, but go to the heart of the matter. Until the US government is prepared to face up to them, sneering at West European faintheartedness is, in Napoleon's words, ``worse than wrong, it is stupid.''
Robert E. Hunter is director of European studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. During the Carter administration, he was director of West European affairs at the National Security Council.