The United States, stung by France's refusal to attend a foreign ministers' meeting in Bonn, sought yesterday to dispel the impression of a developing split within NATO over its response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The impression of disarray left by the U.S.-French dispute appeared to be causing concern in both governments and led them yesterday to try and minimize the importance of their disagreements.
French diplomatic sources here met with reporters to stress that the two countries are "very close" in their view of the situation and differ only about diplomatic tactics.At the same time, State Department spokesman Hodding Carter said the basic attitudes of the two nations "run along parallel lines."
But, despite these efforts, there seemed to be no immediate substitute mechanism for the aborted Bonn meeting that will allow the North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies to show unity over their approach to Afghanistan.
Instead, U.S. officials said, Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance plans to travel to Bonn Feb. 19 for talks with West German leaders. On the return trip, he probably will have similar consultations in other allied capitals, most likely London and Ottawa.
But, the officials added, at this point Vance intends to bypass Paris -- a move that would underscore anew the divergence between Washington and President Valery Giscard d'Estaing's government.
These officials insisted last night that Vance's decision to avoid France probably would stand despite assurance of French diplomatic sources here that he would "would be most welcome" in Paris. Although Vance tentatively was scheduled to meet last night with French Ambassador Francois de Laboulaye, the officials said there was little likelihood Vance would change his mind.
It had been planned for Vance to have an informal dinner with four or five allied foreign ministers, including Jean Francois-Poncet of France, in Bonn Feb. 20 and then continue discussions on Afghanistan the following day.
However, when news of the meeting leaked to the press here, France angrily announced last Friday it would not attend. The reason, French officials made clear, was their feeling that what they had expected to be an informal, almost secret get-together was being transformed into what might appear as a major anti-Soviet conference.
French diplomatic sources told reporters yesterday that was unacceptable to the Giscard government, which, despite its ties to NATO, maintains a basically independent foreign policy and stresses its aloofness from what Giscard calls "bloc politics."
Since the outset of the Afghanistan crises, France has pursued a zigzagging course that frequently has appeared to be at odds with Washington. While stressing its concern over Soviet actions in Afghanistan, the Giscard government also has seemed reluctant to disturb its detente relationship with Moscow and has been the most outspoken of the NATO countries in urging a cautious approach to confrontation with the Soviets.
The French diplomats, who declined to be identified, yesterday said France shares U.S. concerns about the seriousness of the Afghanistan situation and the need to get Soviet forces out.
But, the diplomats continued, France feels U.S. approaches, such as seeking a boycott of the Moscow Olympic Games, serve only to provoke the Soviets without offering any prospects for solution. In the French view, the West should seek "the attainable aim of a negotiated withdrawal" by dealing with Moscow through Diplomacy to determine "the possibilities we can live with and the possibilities the Soviets can live with."
U.S. officials, while conceding the scuttling of the Bonn meeting was an embarrassment for the United States, said it still was important for Vance to seek as much coordination as possible by talking with the West Germans and possibly other allies.
The West Germany visit, one official said, "stands on its own legs" because it is expected to result in West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher spelling out publicly in the strongest terms yet his country's basic support for U.S. moves in the Afghanistan situation. That, the official added, could include a public call by the West German government for boycotting the Moscow Olympics this summer.