PRESIDENT Bush's talk with French President Fran,cois Mitterrand last week here among the sun-soaked mangroves ended a series of Bush summit meetings with some small further steps toward reshaping the Western alliance. That was the easy part.
The more difficult role for President Bush lies in giving strong warnings to the Soviets over the escalating crisis in Lithuania while keeping the Western allies behind him.
Just as Lithuanian independence is proving the sharpest test yet of how far the Soviet Union is willing to allow democracy to go, so too it could test the cohesiveness of the West in responding.
So far, the allies have been unified in their approach. The consensus has been to avoid pressing Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev so hard as to endanger his reforms.
``They're all agreed that they should speak softly and hope that the whole thing blows over,'' says Michael Mandelbaum, director of the Council on Foreign Relations project on East-West relations.
If it does not blow over, and the US is driven to take action that cools relations with the Soviets, the Americans might well be on their own. Certainly the French and Germans have shown very little inclination to get tough with the Soviets.
Norway was the first country to take a concrete step, by offering to sell oil to Lithuania when the Soviets cut off supplies. But Lithuania lacks credit to buy oil, and nothing has yet come of the offer.
On Thursday, Bush indicated that some sort of sanction or response to the Soviets was under consideration, and that President Gorbachev knew that American tolerance had limits.
But Bush has avoided the most obvious step available - threatening to call off the Bush-Gorbachev summit scheduled for late May. And he has not laid out any clear indication of how far the Soviets can go against Lithuania before the US responds.
The coming US-Soviet summit puts pressure on Bush, since a friendly meeting risks at least the appearance of US acquiescence to Soviet actions in Lithuania.
And recent Soviet moves have pushed the US closer to a reaction. Last week Bush notified allied leaders of options being considered by the US. And early this week, he will meet with congressional leaders for more talks, reportedly focusing on possible economic sanctions against Moscow.
Yet if the US does anything to reverse the current d'etente, says Patrick Glynn of the American Enterprise Institute, ``it will be very rough on the alliance.''
Most Europeans - especially the Germans - are deeply concerned that any actions not jeopardize the continuing openness of Eastern Europe.
While dealing with such delicate ongoing business, the allies must also fabricate the political and economic structures for a new European order.
The latest series of meetings inches the process forward. Bush and President Mitterrand publicly endorsed a summit of NATO leaders by the end of the year. Bush also backed further away from the once-firm US commitment to short-range nuclear missiles based in West Germany. These missiles are becoming increasingly unpopular as German unity approaches, since they are aimed at East Germany.
But the larger question of what will replace the traditional role of NATO for organizing European and American relations has barely begun to be addressed.
The Germans are consumed with working out reunification. France has been pushing for rapid European integration, yet finds the process complicated by German unity. Britain has shown more concern over its autonomy than with protecting its influence in Europe.
As for the US, Bush has preferred working out relationships in small steps rather than pointing to where the US wants the discussions to go.
``We should have some sense of what we want,'' says Heritage Foundation senior vice president Burton Yale Pines.
Bush has proven sure-footed in this difficult policymaking climb, says Robert Hunter, director of European Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. ``But he's not working fast enough and hard enough at coming up with some new thinking.''
At root, the Bush administration wants a basis for dealing with Europe. It wants rapid integration of the European Community to help hold the West together as the East opens. It wants Germany in NATO and some form of nuclear deterrent to remain in Europe.