PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH, dealing deftly with the political complexities in two trips to Europe, has reinforced the relevance of the United States to events on that continent. Nevertheless, questions remain on both sides of the Atlantic regarding America's future role in European affairs. Discussions at a two-day conference in Paris just before the President's last trip underlined some of these questions.
Americans present spoke of the concerns in Washington over an imbalance between the US contribution to Europe's defense and that of the continental nations, concerns reinforced by two perceptions. First, that European budgetary contributions to security lag well behind those of the US. Second, that NATO countries do not carry their share of the responsibilities toward issues, such as terrorism, in third-world nations.
Both formal and corridor exchanges centered, also, on American concerns that Europeans were too quick to accept Mikhail Gorbachev's changes in the Soviet Union as genuine and irreversible.
Europeans questioned the willingness and capacity of the United States to continue active participation in European affairs. They pointed to the US budget and trade deficits, divisions between Congress and the executive over foreign policy, and the traditional antipathy in America toward balance-of-power politics. One French participant said: You Americans are now more than ever No. 1, but your ability to exercise your power is limited and you lack that understanding of others necessary for a world leader. There will be less of America in tomorrow's Europe - but no outside power will replace America.
From discussions in this conference and others, it is clear that the future American role in Europe is less certain than ever before. Europeans insist that the creation of a full common market in Europe in 1992 will not mean a ``fortress Europe,'' but, no doubt, outsiders will have to compete in that market on European terms. Strategically-minded Europeans still see a role for the United States in the defense of the continent, but, they point out, with signs of change in the Soviet Union, fewer of their constituents see the need for greater defense expenditures.
When the talk turns to Eastern Europe and to the future of Germany, the crystal ball becomes even less clear. The call by Mikhail Gorbachev for a ``common European home'' was in everyone's mind. None accepted it as a basis for Europe's future, because the Soviet leader's meaning was not clear.
Yet a consensus existed among the European participants that the tangled problems of Eastern Europe, including the future of East Germany, could most effectively be settled within a European framework.
The questions and criticisms were accompanied, however, by a recognition that Washington remained crucial to European hopes for arms control agreements with the Soviets and by statements reflecting a desire to keep America involved; Europeans do not want to be left totally alone with the vexing questions of the future of Germany and Eastern Europe and the nagging worries of unrest in the process of change.
Behind these questions, nevertheless, was one of whether the American people realize the depth of both current and potential change on the Eurasian land mass and are in a position to influence those changes.
President Bush's latest trip has allayed some of these concerns. His willingness to let the European Community take the lead in providing food assistance to Eastern Europe will be especially helpful in demonstrating a US recognition of the reality of the new Europe. But worries will remain that, as has happened so often before in history, the international outlook of an American president may not be matched by support from the US body politic.