There was considerable consternation in Washington when Chancelor Helmut Schmidt of West Germany first made it known he was travelling to Moscow for a summit meeting with Leonid Brezhnev. This struck some, including the President, as loneranger diplomacy. It is therefore worth noting that the summit has come and gone -- and the Western alliance has survived. MR. Schmidt had his politically valuable tete-a- tete with the Kremlin leader while yielding nothing on NATO's unified position -- a position prudently worked out among the allies before he went. He was able to satisfy the US concern that there be no allied retreat on Afghanistan and at the same time follow through on Europe's determination to press ahead with arms control. If the summit did not produce any breakthrough in the general East-West coolness, it did not make matters any worse. It may have improved things.
The chancellor hints that the Russians may be less rigid now on East-West negotiations to limit medium-range missiles in Europe. Until Mr. Schmidt briefs all the NATO allies and more is known about the talks in Moscow, one must suppress even slight optimism. Mr. Brezhnev, still hanging on to the Afghan tiger tail, may have his own reasons for conveying a more flexible stance. There may prove to be more fantasy than fact in the Soviet signal. But it cannot be ruled out that the Soviets do see it in their interest to get nuclear arms talks started with the West. If so, this is a development which NATO ought vigorously, if cautiously, to pursue.
Europeans can only be uneasy over the continuing Soviet deployment of the modern SS-20 missiles in the western USSR which can reach Europe. To counter what is perceived as a decided Soviet missile advantage, NATO is planning to deploy 572 cruise and advanced Pershing missiles in Western Europe beginning at the end of 1983. It is this tit-for-tat escalation of nuclear weaponry which needs to be reversed.
The loss of momentum in nuclear weapons disarmament has been one of the casualties of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Yet, as we have argued before , the very fact of growing Soviet military power and emboldened use of it abroad point up necessity of arms control. Unrestrained military buildup simply enhances the chances for conflict when regional tensions do develop. Both sides recognize this in theory but, in the heat of the Afghan intervention, flagging US congressional interest in the SALT II treaty disappeared altogether. How could one do business with the Russian aggressors (especially in an election year)?
SALT remains in limbo, of course, but one detects in the US position now an edging toward the European view that arms control is one area which can be and should be isolated from the issue of Afghanistan. This would not be the first instance in recent history of such "compartmentalization" of diplomatic problems. during the Vietnam war the Soviet Union and the United States fought on opposite sides of the fence. Their strategic interests were in strong conflict. Yet, even while US forces were mining Haiphong harbor, US diplomats were readying the SALT I treaty and an historic summit meeting in Moscow. Vietnam was thus isolated from the longer- range issues of disarmament and detente. Both sides benefited.
This is not to say the West ought to slacken its concern over Afghanistan. The Russians should not for a moment be let off the hook. Mr. Schmidt firmly reiterated the West's call for a total withdrawal of Soviet forces, and all reasonable pressures ought to be applied on Moscow until this demand is met. But the passage of time allows for more perspective on the crisis than was previously possible. The point is that the Soviets, like others down through history, are learning bitter lesson of plunging into far-off places with the aim of imposing their will. The cost for Moscow has been high and it continues to mount. The russians have turned the whole Afghan nation against them, and the only way they can ever "win" is by virtually killing everyone off. They are massacring and being massacred. That is hardly the outcome they envisaged.
Helmut Schmidt, among other European leaders, has thus seen the value of keeping Afghanistan in proportion and not letting it undermine those areas of progress in East- West relations worth preserving. Whether he came home with anything concrete remains to be seen. But, at the least, it appears President Carter need no longer be nervous about West GErmany summitry.