Europe winces at Reagan's tough rhetoric
* Europe urgently wants President Reagan to resume SALT talks with the Soviet Union. * Europe, while wincing at Mr. Reagan's rhetoric about the Kremlin, trusts that America's actual policy will be made by the pragmatists he has appointed -- and that the Kremlin will react to America's deeds rather than its words.
These premises recur in talk after talk with ambassadors and other Western diplomats in Bonn. They constitute a European consensus. They underlie the message that both Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain and Social Democratic Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of West Germany will be carrying to their new Washington host in visits in February (Thatcher) and April (Schmidt tentatively).
A minority European diplomatic view worries that President Reagan's severe pronouncements may persuade the Russians that they have nothing to hope for in superpower relations -- and therefore remove one disincentive to any Soviet invasion of Poland. This view has not been adopted by major West European foreign ministers or prime ministers, however.
The European emphasis on strategic arms limitation talks (SALT) has two sources. The first is concern that the nuclear arms race could skid out of control in the 1980s unless every effort is made to exercise mutual restraint. The second is concern that without vigorous, visible Western efforts at arms control, public opinion in Europe will not support needed upgrading of NATO's nuclear forces to offset growing Soviet theater superiority.
All diplomats consulted were firm on the importance of SALT.
"Like a horse and carriage," suggested one ambassador, "increased defense and arms control go together in Europe. If you're going to get support for increased defense measures, they must go hand in hand with arms control negotiations. . . . The leaders must demonstrate that they are trying to get security at the lowest common level. That's common in Europe. It doesn't seem to be quite the same imperative in the United States."
The ambassador added that the particular format of arms control was not crucial -- whether in ratification of some modified SALT II or resumption of US-Soviet negotiations on theater nuclear weapons ("SALT 2 1/2") while tacitly observing the still unratified SALT II. But the substance of SALT talks is essential.
European diplomats believe that Reagan will (perhaps with their encouragement) salvage SALT negotiations at some point.
They do regret Reagan's unusual public charge that the Russians will "commit any crime," "lie," and "cheat" in pursuit of "a one-world socialist or communist state." They consider that this kind of language, if used at all, is best left to someone other than the head of state who will have to negotiate with the people accused.
They make allowances for a certain "show-biz" residue from the US election campaign, however. They expect that nonabstract reality and responsibility will quickly temper the black-and-white views of a Reagan inexperienced in diplomacy. And they note Pravda's provocation of President Reagan in claiming an imminent American attack on Iran in the delicate final hours preceding release of the American hostages in Iran.
More specifically, West European diplomats believe that the Russians (barring a crisis in Poland) will wait out the early thrashings of chaotic American policy formation before judging Reagan. So far, noted an ambassador, the Kremlin has reacted to Reagan's condemnation of them "more in sorrow than in anger." The Russians think of the Republicans as people they can do business with, after all; despite his ideological anticommunism, Nixon was the one who concluded detente with Moscow.
Nor are the Europeans uneasy about a fundamental position of toughness toward the Soviet Union as promised by Reagan. A year ago (even after the Soviet invasion of Asian Afghanistan) they were leery of what they saw as Carter's born-again macho. Now -- under the impact of the constant Soviet threat to invade European Poland -- they are not so leery of Reagan's macho.
Long gone are Chancellor Schmidt's post- afghan chidings to Carter that the superpowers must talk to each other; long gone are Schmidt's warnings of stumbling into a new World War I by everyone's inadvertence (rather than a new World War II by failing to resist an expansionist authoritarian state). Long gone, too -- given the Soviet offense to the special French-Polish affinities -- is the time when French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing could arrange a meeting with Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev on the sly, then spring this on his surprised allies only days before the rendezvous.
In 1981, in sharp contrast to 1980, American toughness is welcomed in West Europe (as long as it doesn't turn into belligerence). The word "detente" has vanished from the political vocabulary, to be replaced by a more cautionary "stabilization" (Giscard) or "balance" (Schmidt).
A minority diplomatic view retains the old French-German worry that American shooting from the hip could lastingly damage superpower relations or, with Reagan, that a perception of the Kremlin as implacably "immoral" and unreformable could lead to a dangerous American writing off of negotiations, compromise, and arms restraint with Moscow. If Reagan believes that the Soviet leaders are "nor normal human beings" and are not upset at being called cheats and liars, one diplomat suggested, then the Russians might say, "There's nothing to lose." This necessarily would mean a kind of freedom of action for them in Poland.
The prevailing European diplomatic view, however, holds that Reagan is flexible, teachable -- and will ultimately be pragmatic in his dealings with the Russians. And so will Alexander Haig, a man who knows Europe intimately, was an excellent "political general" as commander of NATO, and as secretary of state will now expand his concepts beyond his earlier military focus.
In addition, the Western Europeans are reassured by Reagan's and Haig's repeated promises that allies will be fully consulted on East-West and other common policies. They don't mind (barring some sudden crisis in Poland) the slowness of formulation of Reagan foreign policy. They even see a certain advantage in Thatcher's talking to Reagan at a very early stage of American policy construction, and Schmidt's talking to him at a coalescing but pr obably not yet fixed stage.