Of all the real or imagined fears that Europeans may harbor about the Reagan administration's combative attitude toward the Russians, one thing is clear: the recent United States decision to resume East-West discussions on theater nuclear forces (TNF), while a step in the right direction, is not without serious risk.
The European press was quick to praise the new US initiative, announced on May 5 by Secretary of State Alexander Haig at the NATO ministerial meetings in Rome. But, among some European politicians and private observers, the barely disguised sense of relief a number of weeks ago has given way t gnawing doubt. The know that promises alone are not likely to assuage growing antinuclear sentiment here; moreover, once negotiations do get underway it is anyone's guess where they may end up.
"The real danger now is that negotiated arms limitation will be further discredited if it is associated with futile efforts," argues Lawrene Freedman, head of policy studies at London's Royal Institute for International Affairs. Mr. Freedman worries that intractable differences between US and Soviet negotiators will shatter public expectations of quick progress and contribute to the poppular appeal of more radical schemes for disarmament now being advanced by a number of unilateral groups.
Is such a gloomy assessment justified? A brief glance at current US and Soviet positions does in fact reveal some serious differenes:
* What to limit?m To date, neither side has been able to agree on which weapons to include in the talks.NATO's preference is to limit land-based missiles. This would include the new Russian SS-20 as well as older medium and intermediate- range missiles. On the US side, the Pershing II ballistic missile and the ground- launched cruise missile -- both scheduled for deployment in Europe in the mid-1980s -- are candidates for limitation.
The Soviets, however, are insisting that US forward-based nuclear aircraft be added into the balance. NATO has resisted thus far, arguing that the inclusion of aircraft on both sides would greatly complicate the negotiations and be difficult to verify.
* Hw to count?m Even if the two sides were to agree on which weapons to include, a more thorny problem would arise in the way each side proposes to add up its totals and where to draw the line. The Soviets appear to favor numerical constraints on delivery systems (i.e. missiles and aircraft), which was done in SALT. The US and its alies prefer that the effective unit-of-limitation be warheads to offset the Russian advantage represented by its multiple-warheaded (MIRVed) SS-20 mobile missile.
* Where to limit?m Geography is another problem. Because of the high degree of mobility and long range of many theater systems. NATO has proposed that the limitations be worldwide in scope, with a regional subceiling for forces in Europe and contiguous areas. The Soviets have not articulated their position publicly, but worldwide limitations would obviously cut into their forces directed at China.
Even to the experienced negotiator these problems would appear fundamental. Initial contacts at the ambassadorial level prior to the Haig-Gromyko meetings this fall might close some gaps. But the great likelihood is that an impasse will result, leaving the negotiations bereft of any long-term strategy or methodology upon which progress depends.
Then there remains the question of what link, if any, the TNF talks would have to SALT. The SALT issue cuts two ways. In the first place, the prospects for agreement might be improved if limits on TNF were integrated into overall ceilings on strategic weapons, like those provided for in SALT II.
Mr. Freedman backs this idea and points out that it would help to lessen the perceived need to match the Russians missile-for-missile in order to obtain an agreement. "The real issue in these talks," he observers, "will be balancing concessions, not numbers."
While insisting on a credible means to counter Russians threats, NATO members have tended to discount the idea that numerical equality in theater nuclear weapons is militarily useful -- it is not called for in NATO's defense strategy. However, as a former US official recently put it: It's one thing to say we don't need to match them, but quite another to deny ourselves the right."
The second SALT-related issue is more straightforward: simply put, TNF limitation in the context of an all-out strategic arms race is no bargain. The Europeans, especially the West Germans, are apt to argue that unless progress can be achieved on b oth fronts, anym negotiated outcome in Europe alone would strengthen the notion that alliance security was divisible, not collective.
If SALT is as crucial to the TNF talks as some experts believe, the odds in favor of a successful negotiation diminish further. When queried on this at the Rome meetings, Secretary Haig referred reporters to the agreed NATO Language that TNF discussions would proceed "Within the SALT framework." But the fact remains that until some positive sounds are heard from Washington on the future of SALT, European anxieties will persist. And, so far at least, the silence is deafening.