THERE are two schools of thought in the United States about closer European cooperation. Washington vacillates between them. One view - this has prevailed in public pronouncements over the years - holds that European integration is good for the US and would provide in defense a strong European ``pillar'' for NATO that is very much needed.
In particular, it could increase the conventional military contribution of the rich and populous Europeans to a more proportional share and relieve America's military and economic burdens.
In part it could do this by fostering quiet French cooperation with NATO, while letting Paris formally disclaim any such rapprochement in order to preserve the French security consensus for Gaullist independence.
The contrary view - this one tends to appear whenever American officials descend from the level of broad policy goals to the nitty-gritty of everyday decisions - is that a unified Europe would become a rival and make it hard for the US to exercise the leadership that a superpower must display within its alliance. In more elegant language, Henry Kissinger used to contend in his time as secretary of state in the 1970s that the European habit of laboriously negotiating a compromise position and then presenting the final product to the US as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition was quite intolerable.
And American diplomats - impatient with the obverse tendency of European governments to feud and cancel out each other's views - contend that a single dominant leader like the United States is indispensable to knock heads together and force NATO to reach any decisions at all.
Not surprisingly, the Europeans view the phenomenon of superpower leadership somewhat differently. To them it seems that the US often plays one European off against the other to secure the kinds of alliance decisions Washington wants. But Europeans have only themselves to blame, they readily concede, since their disunity allows this to happen and ensures that it is always the US that proposes and Europe that weakly reacts.
Moreover, Europeans also see their efforts at establishing a European defense consensus as the only way to prevent the expected American drawdown of troops from being dangerously destabilizing to peace in Europe.
AS nearly as Europeans can tell, the latter-day Reagan administration has never fully decided between the ``pillar'' and ``rival'' theses about European defense cooperation. When the French first revived the Western European Union (WEU) a few years back, a famous confidential letter went out from then Undersecretary of State for European Affairs Richard Burt warning the Europeans not to come to NATO discussions with precooked positions.
The suspicion implicit in this letter has subsequently been disavowed by American officials, including Mr. Burt, now the ambassador to West Germany.
But Europeans take Washington's current endorsement of the WEU and the lack of strong pressures from Washington at the moment more as a sign of disarray within the administration itself than special deference to European sensitivities.
One senior West German official made the classic case for why the US should approve the beginnings of a ``European political authority'' that might develop as foreign ministers and general staffs prepare for joint security decisions by heads of government:
``You would make available to NATO a larger force, because you would have the French forces [which have not come under NATO's command since 1967], or you would work together for the upgrading of your conventional forces. All that is still in the future, [of course], because the French so far have blocked any progress toward this.''
But the important outcome he hoped for from European cooperation was that ``heads of government see to it that ministries of defense get a sufficient part of the budget and get the manpower for sufficient size of forces and make these forces available to NATO with active French participation.
``So it's [less] a question of a European organization than of European manpower armed, of the input into common defense and of French readiness to make available resources to this end and to make available French forces as ... operational reserves to NATO, with an interpretation saying they can come close to forward defense [near the East-West German border] early in the game.''
Certainly some of this is already happening. Although it is a highly sensitive subject, one West German and two French sources said, on the understanding that they not be identified, that French Air Force and field exercises with West Germany are really exercises with NATO.
One source added that representatives of NATO's Military Committee have quietly visited French troops on maneuvers.
Sir James Eberle of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, like a number of other Englishmen interviewed, thought that ``France would like to see the WEU as a forum that would endorse French ideas and present them to the US.''
But he quickly noted, ``I think other European countries would see it slightly differently: developing European ideas before discussion in the NATO alliance ... clearing away some of the undergrowth.''
He himself saw defense as the third leg of European cooperation to join with the political aims of the European Community's ``Single European Act'' that went into effect this month and the economic goal of finally creating a truly free European market by the early 1990s.
This emerging European entity, he suggested, will require that NATO ``change to something more of a partnership.''
The American-run alliance existed ``not because the US necessarily wanted to be the dominant partner, but because Europeans lay on their backs with their legs in the air and said `please defend us.' This relationship has got to change, and management of that change is the greatest task which now faces us - management of West-West relations rather than West-East relations.''
A SENIOR French diplomat also stressed that an evolving European defense identity must not come at the expense of the Americans: ``What could emerge since the crisis of Reykjavik is a clear consciousness of European interests, which is not against NATO, of course, not ganging up against the US. ...
``The US should be glad. But after complaining for years that Europeans should be interested in their own security,'' when they do show this interest, he objected, some Americans don't like it.
A British diplomat was skeptical about French intentions but upbeat about France's actual policy: ``Gaullist philosophy has not disappeared and is not likely to in France. But in terms of what France sees as vital security concerns for Europe, it is coming some way back toward NATO.''
The diplomat described the British point of view this way: ``We see the WEU, which is always a slightly neuralgic point [in Washington], as a body where Europeans should more clearly identify what their interests are and put them forward in a more coherent and bolder way in the alliance. Too often we wait for an American initiative and then grumble about it.
``[Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey] Howe stressed in his speech in Brussels in March that the alliance will remain the only decisionmaking forum. [The WEU] will be a mind-clearing forum where we don't develop a monolithic view, but a more coherent, better input to NATO.''
A colleague added: ``I think the WEU must avoid coming into NATO and saying, `This is it, chums; take it or leave it!' European voices in defense will ultimately be no stronger than their contribution to defense.''
He also spoke of the need for explaining to the young generation why defense is necessary and commented, ``The dreadful feeling that we defend ourselves to please the Americans is appalling.''
Analyzing British reservations about closer European defense cooperation, a member of the NATO secretariat in Brussels summed up the situation by saying, ``There is an impetus to cooperation, if cooperation means having French concerns [about the Germans] put to rest. But as always with Britain, this [development] has to complement and not contradict the alliance.''
Whether pillar or rival, then, does the new sense of crisis condemn Europe to succeed this time around in its effort to hang together? The analyst cautioned against unrealistic expectations.
``For the past four years we have all talked about the impetus to European integration because of Reagan and Reaganism, ... but I don't see [much result]. There have been a few meetings of the WEU, a few bilateral meetings.'' This sort of thing ``always has to be stage by stage. It will probably emerge without any of us realizing it; there won't be a fanfare of trumpets.''