The NATO alliance celebrated its 35th anniversary this week with a foreign ministers' meeting in Washington. They said farewell to Joseph Luns of the Netherlands, who has headed the organization as secretary-general for 13 years, and welcomed in his place Lord Carrington, who resigned as British foreign secretary because he had failed to foresee and forestall the Falklands war.
After suitable rituals, they then took up the same old subject that brought them into existence 35 years ago - what to do about the Soviet Union. And as usual over these 35 years, they concluded that they still need to maintain a collective military defense. But, also as usual, they stepped deftly around the need they all recognize to spend more money on conventional arms in order to reduce the danger of one side being tempted to use nuclear arms.
They cast a thoughtful glance at the vicious war going on between Iran and Iraq in the Persian Gulf but agreed that the best thing they can do is to keep out of it as much as possible, even though Europe depends heavily on the Gulf for its oil.
The Americans continued to urge the West European allies to develop more military ability to play a role in such places as the Gulf, which is more important to Europe than to the United States. But the Europeans countered by pointing to the lag in their economies, for which they blame Washington's unbalanced budget, on grounds it has sucked vast quantities of Europe's investment capital across the Atlantic to get those new high interest rates Americans are willing to pay.
The most earnest discussion at the gathering was about East-West relations. The Europeans want new efforts made to get back toward easier relations with the Soviets. Particularly, the Europeans want a revival of formal negotiations aimed at arms limitations. But all recognize that it is one thing to want easier relations and another to figure out how to go about it with the Soviets showing no interest and deploying more missiles in Europe.
German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher is the latest high-level Western official to go to Moscow on an exploring expedition. Like those who went before him, he could only report that the East-West freeze is as deep as ever and that the Soviets appear to be satisfied to be on snarling terms with just about everybody.
The NATO ministers all recognize that in practical terms there is no way to revive diplomatic traffic with Moscow unless or until Moscow is interested. Perhaps, after the US elections in November, Moscow may show some revived interest, depending on how the Soviets read the election returns. But all recognize that there is little the West can do to change the pattern now.
Meanwhile, Washington could, and did, do something to try to keep the Gulf war from spreading. It shipped to Saudi Arabia enough short-range, ground-launched antiaircraft missiles, called Stingers, to make it possible for the Saudis to give some protection to their oil wells, airfields, and tankers against low-flying air attacks.
There is some anxiety about what happens next. Iranian armed forces are deployed and supposedly poised for a major offensive aimed at cutting the Iraqi communication lines between Baghdad, the capital, and Basra, the main oil shipping port. Moscow is believed to have provided the Iraqis with weapons with which they may be able to beat off the offensive if and when it comes.
Washington has for some time ''tilted'' in Iraq's favor and has been helping quietly by means not yet on the public record. The situation is remarkable, in that this is a local war which finds both Moscow and Washington favoring the same side, Iraq against Iran. It is also unusual in that Washington shipped the Stinger missiles to Saudi Arabia in spite of protests from Israel.
The main concern in Washington is that a major victory for Iran over Iraq would be followed by Iran's gaining control over the smaller Arab states along the Gulf coast. Also, a fanatical and militant Islamic wave could spread throughout Arabia, toppling the more moderate regimes in Saudi Arabia and Jordan , which have traditionally been friendly to the US.
Another factor involved in all this is Moscow's readiness to help Arabs against their enemies on both sides of the Arabian Peninsula. Moscow has become the main supplier of arms to Syria, which has successfully blocked the expansion of Israeli influence into Lebanon. Now it is helping Iraq, an Arab country, defend itself against the threatened invasion by the Persians of Iran.
From the Arab point of view, Arabia is being threatened simultaneously by Israelis on one side and Persians on the other. The logic of the situation has been expressed in the fact that Israel has helped the Iranians with spare parts for their American planes and tanks inherited from the Shah's regime.
Israel objects to any US military aid going to any Arab country. The objection has blocked several recent proposals from the Pentagon for US aid both to Jordan and to Saudi Arabia.
But this past week the threat to Saudi Arabia was deemed to be too urgent for deferring to Israel's wishes. The White House ordered and sent the Stingers in spite of the protests.