Beneath a surface solidarity of strong words and symbolic gestures supporting the tough U.S. response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, most European allies remain reluctant to isolate the Soviet Union by cutting off Soviet access to Western trade and technology.
The notable exception is Britain, which is seriously considering the termination of a $1 billion line of credit and much of its high-technology trade with the Soviet Union.
But a majority of the allies do not want seriously to disrupt their trade with the Soviets and Eastern Europe or to jeopardize the East-West dialogue they still believe to be vital to Western Europe's future.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who arrived here today to begin several days of talks in European capitals, is expected to ask these allies to go much farther than they now seem inclined. Tuesday he will press the U.S. case before a meeting of all 15 North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies in Brussels.
Led by France and West Germany, most NATO nations basically would like to limit NATO's response to a continuing chorus of condemnation of the Soviet invasion, along with diplomatic gestures like curtailment of official contracts and cultural exchanges, and support of the U.S. embargo on grain sales to the Soviets.
There is relatively little substance to such steps, however. The Common Market, which is supporting the U.S. grain embargo, for example, exports only a trickle of grain to the Soviet Union and has not sold wheat for six years.
Christopher is expected to ask the European allies to do more by joining the United States and Canada in cutting off commercial credit and high-technology exports like computers and sophisticated machinery to the Soviet Union.
But, unlike Britain, the governments of France, West Germany and Italy are unwilling to curtail much of their more extensive trade in Western computers, other electronics, chemicals, and construction projects in return for Soviet oil and gas.
Other NATO countries like Turkey and Norway and members of both NATO and the European Common Market, like Denmark, also are against making major cuts in trade with the Soviet Union or, in the case of Norway following the U.S. lead in restricting Soviet fishing rights in its waters.
Even British officials and businessmen are reluctant to act alone in reducing Soviet trade. They fear, for example, that they would lose to French competition a $300 million contract to build a Caspian Sea oil drilling rig.
Promising "suitable" economic sanctions against the Soviet Union in a statement to Parliament here today, Britian's deputy foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, emphasized that "it is highly desirable that measures by Western countries should be concerted, especially in the economic field, where solidarity with our [Common Market] partners will be particularly important."
The foreign ministers of the nine Common Market countries, all of whom except Ireland are members of NATO, also will be meeting in Brussels Tuesday. They also will discuss coordination among European nations in reaction to both the Iran and Afghan crises and will consider stopping the subsidized sale of surplus Common Market butter to the Soviet Union.
Beyond economic considerations, there also are important foreign policy differences between the European allies and the United States. Only the British, under the leadership of hawkish Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, seem ready to follow the Carter administration back into a Cold War.
The French and West Germans are trying to steer a more independent course between the two superpowers. They see the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan not so much as an East-West confrontation threatening Europe as an opportunity to steal influence from the Soviet Union in the Third World.
They want to work a through the Common Market rather than NATO to strengthen economic and diplomatic ties with Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, India, the oil-rich Persian Gulf nations and other Third World countries.
The British are both joining in this effort and working with the United States to strengthen its military capabilities in the Persian Gulf area. The British foreign secretary, Lord Carrington, has been touring Turkey, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, assuring them of British and American support.
The European allies remain uncertain about the overall foreign policy framework in which President Carter is acting on the Afghan crisis. They are concerned that increased U.S. attention on the Middle East and South Asia might distract from its commitment to Europe, where many politicians and military people already ask Americans, "Will you stand by us?"
"Are the Americans going to maintain as much of a hard-charge reinforcing commitment in Europe, or will their extra effort go elsewhere?" asked one NATO source.
For this and other reasons, West Germany, France and a number of smaller NATO allies are not anxious to destroy unnecessarily the East-West dialogue in Europe. West Germany is particularly concerned about the continued repatriation of Germans in Eastern Europe and about improving relations with East Germany.
The last thing Europe seems to want is another Cold War, because the wind blows colder in Europe than in the United States, said Theo Sommer, editor of the influential West German weekly, Die Zeit.
"Europe must not become a zone of tension if tension prevails in other regions," he said. The West cannot win in Berlin the battle it lost in Afghanistan."
Their proximity to Soviet military might in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself make West Germany and smaller NATO nations like Norway and Denmark particularly cautious about the East-West power balance. n
"We are in a very sensitive area between the two superpowers," said one Scandinavian diplomat. "We would prefer a soft NATO line when it comes to concrete actions concerning Afghanistan. We are aiming to continue detente."
Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands also remain determined, according to diplomatic sources, to pursue NATO's commitment to seek disarmament negotiations with the Soviet Union while modernizing NATO's nuclear weapons in Europe with U.S. medium-range missiles. They insisted on the commitment as the condition of their support of the missile modernization decision late last year.
"This is more necessary now than ever," said one source. "There is no doubt Russia has committed overt aggression in Afghanistan, but that should not deter efforts to seek negotiations to reduce tensions and armaments."
The crisis in Iran is seen by most of the European allies as a different matter. They are more willing to join the United States in economic pressure on Iran to free the American hostages in Tehran. This also will be discussed in Christopher's contacts with European leaders and at both NATO and Common Market meetings in Brussels Tuesday.
Except for the large Iranian deposits and loans handled by European bankers, most European economic activity in Iran has already been badly disrupted by Iranian revolution anyway.