Western Europe's leaders may be able to lead George Shultz and Andrei Gromyko to water - the canal city of Stockholm - next month, but can they make the two drink?
What the Europeans (particularly Germany, Britain, and France) would like the superpower foreign ministers to swallow is a prompt return to serious bargaining on nuclear warheads and other security matters. They would also like to be assured that senior officials in Washington and Moscow will help design, and give their backing to, measures that would reduce the danger of accidental war in Europe.
Beyond that, they argue the case for the start of quiet talks leading eventually to a White House-Kremlin summit. There is general agreement that a summit remains unlikely as long as Soviet General Secretary Yuri Andropov's status is uncertain. But many European diplomats are anxiously hoping at least to set American and Soviet officials on a path that would lead to a Reagan-Andropov (or substitute) meeting as soon as the Kremlin leadership is clear.
A West German political writer here explained the European desire for visible US-USSR contact in these terms last week:
''We went by our script, which said, 'We will support deployment, if you will bargain with imagination and flexibility.' The Pershings are suppposed to lead to more serious negotiations aimed at a balanced reduction of the nuclear threat.
We need to show the man and woman in the street that they are really going to be safer in the future. Superpower talks are a symbol of that safety.''
The sequence by which Secretary of State Shultz and Foreign Minister Gromyko are likely to be pressed to meet in Stockholm in mid-January is this:
This week Mr. Shultz meets in Brussels with his NATO opposite numbers. He said at a breakfast meeting with reporters last week that he would go to an East-West meeting in Stockholm Jan. 17 if the NATO foreign ministers decide to attend.
Otherwise the parley on confidence-building measures would draw mainly ambassadors.
Given public pressures in most of the NATO countries, it is likely that the foreign ministers will decide to go to Stockholm in person. That would signal their governments' desire to maintain high-level contact with Soviet bloc governments.
And it would reinforce the argument Germany's Chancellor Kohl and Britain's Prime Minister Thatcher have made to their publics that deployment of Pershing II and cruise missiles creates pressure for continuing negotiation rather than a rupture of East-West contact.
If the Western foreign ministers announce they are going to Stockholm, the pressure would shift to Mr. Gromyko to attend.
It is possible that the imperturbable Soviet foreign policy veteran might find a reason not to make the trip across the Baltic. But from the Kremlin viewpoint, failure to send the Soviet foreign minister to an East-West session of other foreign ministers would be costly in terms of public opinion.
If Moscow is not to jeopardize its standing with Western missile protestors and the general European public, it must show itself willing to give high-level attention to a parley such as that in Stockholm. The meeting is scheduled to take up a series of proposals for reducing the danger of accidental war and for increasing communication between East and West.
If Mr.Gromyko makes the trip, he and Mr.Shultz could be expected to hold at least one private meeting.
That leaves open the question of what, if anything, might be accomplished by such an exchange of views.
The last meeting of the two men, Sept. 9 in Madrid, is known to have been coldly formal and unproductive. It came at the height of invective over Soviet shooting down of the Korean civilian airliner over Sakhalin.
The general view of arms control specialists has been that a mid-January meeting might come too soon for any initiatives from the Soviet side. This view holds that Politburo planners will be concentrating on internal management questions delayed by the long absence of Mr. Andropov. It further argues that Kremlin leaders are not in a hurry to come back to European missile bargaining, and that they may wish to see how Mr. Reagan stands in the campaign season polls before deciding whether to make any proposals to Washington.
For his part, Mr. Shultz is also reluctant to raise public hopes without some concrete signs of progress. He responded bluntly at last week's breakfast when a reporter suggested that preceding administrations had each accomplished an arms control agreement with the Soviets. The Secretary of State said he felt no compulsion to conclude an agreement in this term of office unless it was a good one.
Several arms control experts contacted said that the most they would expect from a Shultz-Gromyko meeting would be a resumption of high-level exchanges that might eventually lead to new talks on a balance of nuclear warheads in Europe.
They said it was conceivable that such exchanges might also lead to new discussion of a US-Soviet summit. But that subject was obviously hostage to the question of who will be at the helm in the Kremlin.