Europe has brought its strong reservations about America's strategic defense plans out in the open. In his March 15 address to the Royal United Services Institute the British foreign secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe:
Expressed European misgivings about the impact of President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or ``star wars'' program) on superpower stability and on the NATO alliance.
Made it clear that European approval of current SDI research does not extend to deployment that would violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.
These qualms are not new. Nor are they exclusively British. They are shared by France, West Germany, and Italy. But the Europeans have been timid about speaking up out of fear of stimulating anti-European feeling in the United States, encouraging a mentality of Fortress America -- and freezing Europe out of lucrative civilian technological spinoff from SDI.
So subtle have the Europeans been in their public statements, in fact, that the US news media widely interpreted recent comments by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi in the US as close to unqualified support for SDI.
It is partly to correct this impression that Sir Geoffrey has issued his polite but clear statement -- in a speech that is understood to have been cleared by Prime Minister Thatcher herself.
The other European allies appreciate London's lead. Washington may suspect any ally that questions SDI of disloyalty to the US or of succumbing to Soviet efforts to drive a wedge between the US and Europe -- but the US probably suspects Britain less, the Europeans believe, than, say, West Germany.
Sir Geoffrey alluded to the sensitivity of airing allied differences about SDI at a time when superpower arms control negotiations are just being resumed in Geneva. And certainly no European wants to encourage Moscow to think it could split the NATO alliance by substituting propaganda against space weapons for real compromise at Geneva.
But Sir Geoffrey made it clear that Europe deems it essential to sort out the problematical aspects of SDI now, before the program's momentum locks the world into some dangerous new arms race.
Sir Geoffrey's central challenge to SDI was couched in terms of stability. He said it is important for the allies to ascertain ``how best to enhance deterrence, how best to curb rather than stimulate a new arms race.''
SDI might do the latter, he suggested, if it turned out to be only partially effective ``against weapons of devastating destructive force'' and created ``a new Maginot Line of the 21st century, liable to be outflanked by relatively simpler and demonstrably cheaper countermeasures.'' (In the 1930s the French mistakenly trusted their fortifications along the Maginot Line to provide them with a perfect defense, but the Germans simply skirted them and swiftly conquered France.)
In this context Sir Geoffrey approvingly cited the criteria for any SDI deployment set by presidential adviser Paul Nitze: survivability and cost effectiveness. And he asked whether the ``many hundreds of billions of dollars'' required for SDI ``might be better employed'' in buying other kinds of deterrence.
In exploring SDI's impact on NATO, Sir Geoffrey declared, ``We must consider the potential consequences for this unique relationship. We must be sure that the United States' nuclear guarantee to Europe will indeed be enhanced not at the end of the process, but from its very inception.''
On the necessary distinction between research and deployment, the Foreign Secretary repeated the joint statement by Mr. Reagan and Thatcher last December endorsing research but stipulating that deployment would be a matter for negotiation with the Soviet Union. Otherwise, he implied, Moscow might fear that the US was striving not for defense, but for nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union and might react in dangerous ways in a period when any new SDI would provide very little shield.