The terms of a treaty are one thing; its consequences are quite another. Reagan administration policy makers are still reeling from the unanticipated affects of the ''Wright-Reagan'' peace proposal on Central America's presidents. I predict they will be still more chagrined at the unexpected consequences of the INF negotiations on Europe and on NATO.
Taken by itself, the impending treaty looks like a good deal. It requires the Soviets to destroy more intermediate-range missiles than we do -- because they have more. In the abstract it seems to move Europe's strategic position back to where it was before the Soviet Union targeted SS-20s against Western European capitals, thus stimulating NATO's decision to deploy American Pershings and cruise missiles.
But weapons systems do not exist in the abstract. They exist in particular political and cultural circumstances. As Pasteur said once of disease, ''The germ is nothing, the environment is everything.''
The beliefs, doubts and fears of our European allies give the INF treaty an impact remote from the intentions of our negotiators.
Coloring Europe's interpretation of the treaty are two widespread beliefs: that U.S. negotiations were driven by domestic political factors rather than strategic concerns, and that Mikhail Gorbachev, to the contrary, was driven by strategic goals rather than domestic political pressures.
Our European allies follow our politics more closely than we follow theirs. They have heard about Nancy Reagan's dream of having her husband enter history as a peacemaker. They know about Ronald Reagan's abhorrence of nuclear weapons, about the Iran-contra hearings and the erosion of presidential power. They know polls show broad American support for an arms accord. They believe that Ronald Reagan plans to recoup his faltering political fortunes with an arms treaty and that in this he is urged on by George Bush.
''What an election gift Gorbachev can make to the Republicans in general and to Bush in particular if he visits Washington before the end of the year,'' observed LePoint magazine. In the European view, helping the Republicans achieve their political ends helps Gorbachev achieve his strategic goals.
A French official wrote in Politique Etrangere: ''Never have the Soviets advertised so openly the objectives the West has always attributed to them: denuclearization of Europe, de-linkage of Europe and the United States, and creation of a new all European ''security system.' ''
In this view, Gorbachev laid a ''remarkable diplomatic trap'' into which the United States willingly fell. The French weekly Express saw the ''Gorbachev effect'' at work on both sides of the Atlantic -- sowing doubts about the reality of the Soviet threat and exacerbating the psychological distance between the United States and Europe, all the while raising hope and intensifying anxieties about the German role in Europe.
The impending INF accord has heightened Europe's concerns about its security and, as Richard Perle makes clear, that is an anticipated and welcome side-effect of the proposal. But certain other effects on Europe were surely neither expected nor desired.
Ronald Reagan surely did not intend to strengthen the argument of antinuclear unilateralists in Great Britain and West Germany, but his focus on nuclear weapons as a unique source of danger did just that.
It seems unlikely that Reagan or George Shultz intended to strengthen those advocating a denuclearized, neutral, unified Germany as a first step to a denuclearized, neutral Europe. But, as Marxists like to say, it is surely no accident that in the same month when general agreement on the INF accord was reached, Mikhail Gorbachev permitted the leader of Communist Germany to pay his first visit to Bonn, reminding everyone that it is within the Soviets' power to arrange the closer relations that all Germans once again seem to desire.
It seems unlikely that Reagan or Shultz intended to speed the disintegration of NATO or the development of a new framework for European defense. But the combination of Reykjavik and INF talks shook sober Europeans' confidence in American judgment and especially in the reliability of the United States as the leader of the Western alliance. They were stunned that basic elements of NATO strategy were put on the table at Reykjavik, regarded as negotiable, and nearly negotiated away -- all without consultation of European allies.
Finally, I do not believe that Ronald Reagan or George Shultz intended to render Europe more vulnerable, nor the Soviet Union less vulnerable, nor the Atlantic alliance weaker. But that is what the proposed agreement does. Because the Pershing IIs and cruise missiles are what the Soviets fear most, they have become the centerpiece in deterring Soviet moves against Europe and a symbol of U.S. commitment to the defense of Europe. Their removal has a symbolic as well as military significance.
The INF accord has not even been concluded, but the fallout from these particular intermediate-range missiles has already altered the climate of Western Europe.