LATE last year, a modest storm broke over the Federal Republic of Germany when a high United States official suggested to the US alliance partner that it might spend its money a bit differently. A newspaper in the town of Osnabr"uck printed an interview with Richard Perle, US assistant secretary of defense for international security policy. In it he made the familiar and perhaps justified pitch for heavier contributions to defense costs by our European allies in general, and by West Germany in particular. That in itself would have occasioned little alarm; Europeans are used to that. But Mr. Perle went further, proposing that Bonn could generate the required investment by cutting back on its loans to East Germany. That was the part of the contretemps that brought sour looks to the faces of German leaders and negative reactions in the press.
This gratuitous intervention from Washington was a direct challenge, however innocent it may have seemed, to the very foundation of Germany's membership in the Western alliance. German adherence to the NATO pact entailed recognition of its entirely legitimate special relationship with the other Germany. West German membership in the European Community also acknowledged that special relationship, in the form of customs exemptions, and therewith opened a ``leak'' in the counterposed alliances.
It is possible to view that leak negatively - as an unearned bonus that benefits East Germany and its Warsaw Pact allies. Or it can be assessed more positively - as a useful exception to unrelieved hostility between the two alliances. It cannot, however, be treated as an incidental or transitory feature of West German policy, especially since the main features of Bonn's Ostpolitik have survived the transition from Social Democrats to Christian Democrats, from Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt to the present Helmut Kohl government.
It would probably have offended less, especially with a conservative government in power in Bonn, had Perle's suggestion been couched in the terms familiar in Washington - cutting social programs in the interest of defense. But the notion of dismantling the ties with East Germany, so carefully nursed along over the years, was rightly perceived as a threat to the foundations of the Western alliance.
No one has ever pretended that the alliance system is a pact among equals. The US is plainly the dominant power in the West; its relationship with its European allies operates smoothly only if the US is restrained in exercising its dominant role, and if the Europeans do not get too unruly in their reaction against the facts of relative power. It can scarcely help matters if US spokesmen are seen as throwing their weight around.
Yet there has to be something else at work here beyond a thoughtless and ill-advised offhand demeaning of established policy in Bonn. It seems clear that the episode represents an ideological reflex: Taking a swipe at an outpost of the ``evil empire'' is always appropriate if international politics is seen as an arena in which good is pitted against evil. Bonn can be excused for wondering if it may be locked into that view of the world by reason of its status within the alliance.
The episode was all the more unfortunate in that it came at a time when, for many Europeans and Americans as well, the Soviet Union appears to be more flexible and more constructive in its approach to reduction of tension and armament than is the US.
One may be excused if he wonders whether an ideological mind-set on the US side might turn out to be more dangerous than the one Americans have been taught to ascribe to the other superpower.
Lyman H. Legters is a professor in the School of International Studies, University of Washington, and a senior fellow of the William O. Douglas Institute, Seattle.