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'The lesson of the pipeline'

This is a footnote to the recent conference of Western heads of government in Williams-burg, Va. Much has been written about how harmonious it was.

It was harmonious, particularly when contrasted with the one of the year before at Versailles. That conference at Versailles was a diplomatic disaster. It gave rise to many a newspaper story about a possible breakup of the Western alliance. It must have brought rejoicing within the walls of the Kremlin.

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The meeting in Williamsburg was the reverse. Many a story reported the revival of the alliance. There was no balm in it for Moscow.

What caused the difference?

A little pamphlet came across my desk the other day which explains that difference better than anything else I have seen. It was the text of a brief speech delivered at Tufts University earlier in the spring by Sir Oliver Wright, British Ambassador in Washington.

It spoke of ''the lesson of the pipeline.''

The ''pipeline,'' you may remember, was the one the West European countries are building from Siberia to bring Siberian natural gas all across the intervening miles to Western Europe.

President Reagan spent the better part of two years trying to block construction of that pipeline. He even applied, or tried to apply, economic sanctions against his West European allies in an effort to coerce them into abandoning, or ceasing to support, the building of that pipeline. He also was pushing them to tighten up on their trade with the Soviet Union. He wanted less technology in that trade, and tougher terms of trade.

It amounted to an effort to line up the NATO allies in a broad campaign of economic sanctions against the Soviets on a theory much favored in some administration quarters, particularly at the Pentagon, that concerted economic pressure on the Soviets could bring down the Soviet regime.

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Versailles was a disaster because Mr. Reagan was pushing in the direction of such sanctions. The allies simply refused to go along, either for general sanctions or even for abandonment of the pipeline.

Williamsburg was a success because President Reagan has dropped his campaign against the pipeline and all but dropped his campaign for tougher terms of trade between the West and Moscow. Even before the meeting he had authorized his own Department of Agriculture to seek a deal with the Soviets for larger sales of US grain to them.

In other words, Williamsburg disclosed the fact that Mr. Reagan had abandoned a policy of waging economic warfare against the Soviets. He was even joining the allies in trying to do more, not less, trade with the Soviets. He had joined in economic coexistence with the Soviets. Hence, Williamsburg could be a success in terms of harmony.

How did all this come about?

Sir Oliver noted in his speech that ''the European community is now as prosperous as America,'' it has achieved ''economic parity with America,'' and, as a result, there is now ''a basic shift in attitudes, perceptions, and power relationships.''

One aspect of this shift in the power relationship is that ''Europe considers its view of the Soviet Union as valid as America's view and as equally worthy of consideration and discussion.''

Europe's view, he said, is conditioned by three factors. Europe lives on the same continent with the Soviet Union, ''it shares with the Soviet Union a common interest in survival,'' and it ''accepts the facts of Soviet military strength, the reality of Soviet antipathy to our way of life, and the evidence of the Soviet drive to alter the 'correlation of forces' in their favor.''

Given these facts, Sir Oliver said, ''we might as well have as civilized a relationship with them (the Soviets) as the facts of their military strength and political antipathy allow.''

The new Europe, now on a parity in economic strength with the US, declines to go along with the posture of hostility toward the Soviets of the early Reagan years, will not have any part in a campaign of economic sanctions, and thinks that we ought to maintain the military balance ''at the lowest possible level.''

If the US wishes to go along a more hostile road, it will go alone. At Williamsburg Mr. Reagan was traveling along the quieter road of the Europeans. So long as he stays on that road - the alliance will be harmonious. Mrs. Thatcher's reelection is not going to change this. Sir Oliver is her ambassador.

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