It is ironic that at a time when the United States has elected a president committed to strengthening American and NATO defenses, West European governments are lukewarm to increasing their own military spending. This promises to be an early challenge to the Reagan administration. Two years ago the members of NATO pledged to boost military outlays by 3 percent a year through 1986 in order to keep a pace with the Soviet defense buildup. But West Germany has decided to go back on this pledge. Belgium, the Netherlands, and Denmark have also announced budgets well under the 3 percent goal.
This week the issue comes to the fore with the arrival in Washington of West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. In talks with President Carter and Reagan advisers, Mr. Schmidt will no doubt be pressed on his contention that the NATO goal may no longer be realistic because of the poor economic situation in Western Europe. This is cold comfort for the United States, however, which believes that Western Europe and Japan, with their massive economies, should bear an increasing share of the responsibility for defending the West's vital interests in the Middle East and elsewhere. Howard Baker, likely to be the Senate majority leader come January, has sharply warned of the threat to the Atlantic alliance of growing disagreements over how to deal with the Soviet Union.
While policies are reassessed and debated, it is clear that one route out of the dilemma is vigorously to continue working for arms control. Economic constraints are bearing down on all nations, East and West. The West German economy, long held up as a model of efficiency and growth, is expected to be almost stagnant next year. The US is barely coming out of recession and still confronts high inflation and unemployment. High hopes are place on President-elect Reagan to inject new life into the dominant American economy, but there remains widespread skepticism that he can boost defense outlays as much as 7 percent annually and still cut taxes 10 percent a year as promised.
The Soviet Union, for its part, is in an economic mess, with a poor harvest, unfulfilled production goals, and all the strains added by the relentless fighting in Afghanistan and the troubles in Poland. Surely Soviet no less than avoid an accelerated arms race -- which not only is dangerous for world stability but staggeringly costly.
This is why SALT is so important and why Mr. Reagan himself moved toward a more moderate position on arms limitation in the course of his campaign. In this connection the recent private visit to Moscow of a delegation of US arms control experts, including a top adviser to Mr. Reagan, takes on considerable importance. While the Russians showed no willingness to renegotiate SALT II, as President-elect Reagan wants, they did not close the door to considering new US arms proposals to salvage the treaty. In another encouraging sign, Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Tikhonov said recently the Soviet Union is ready for constructive ideas.
There is, in short, some fundamental thinking to do about the whole East-West relationship and how best to respond to the growth of Soviet military might. We sympathize with the view that America's allies should bear more of the Western defense burden. We also believe the Atlantic alliance will more easily and effectively be strengthened by an energetic pursuit of nuclear arms control. These are the issues on which Chancellor Schmidt this week begins briefing the soo-to-be Republican leadership.