In words that undoubtedly will be welcomed in West European capitals, Secretary of State-designate Alexander M. Haig Jr. says "it is important for the American people to recall once in a while what we get out of the NATO alliance" and not to measure allies' resolve only by how much money they spend on defense.
Haig's call for a "more balanced" view of the European commitment to the alliance defense came during testimony Saturday at confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Haig's comments provided the most extensive and important signal thus far that the incoming administration will adopt a less confrontational attitude toward the European allies on the politically touchy defense spending issue. The fact that the statement came from Haig, a retired four-star general who served as NATO commander in Europe for 4 1/2 years, undoubtedly gives this change in tone even more weight among European leaders.
The comments mark the second time in a week that such an approach has been signaled. Defense Secretary-designate Caspar Weinberger also told a Senate committee last week that he favored getting away from measuring allied dedication to defense by some fixed percentage increase in military spending.
Top Carter administration officials such as Defense Secretary Harold Brown and national security affairs adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski have made it clear, especially in the past several months, that the administration was disappointed by allied spending and that many of them were slipping below the 3 percent real annual increase, beyond inflation, that members pledged to meet in 1978.
Brown put it most bluntly, telling the Europeans that "they need to behave as if their military security is as important to them as it is to us."
Some senior Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.), also have warned recently that the Europeans must do more.
Thus, as some foreign policy specialists here see it, Haig's testimony may also signal an attempt to try to convince important Republican quarters that, as Haig said, the United States must be very, very careful" in how it handles this issue.
The matter arose when Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) noted that America's per capita spending on defense is more than double the average of its NATO allies and asked Haig what he would do to convince them that they are not doing their fair share.
"I'm not completely comfortable with your thesis," Haig answered, warning that monetary contributions "are very dangerous measures taken exclusively or alone.
"If we went to war tomorrow, 90 percent of the ground forces, 80 percent of naval forces and about 75 percent of the air forces" available initially to the NATO commander would come from European nations. "So it's awfully important not to go into this thing with a chip on our shoulders and with the attitude that we are the only guys doing the job."
If West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt were sitting in the hearing room, and Pressler asked him why he didn't do more, Haig said, Schmidt would probably answer: "'Senator, I maintain 500,000 men under arms, the equivalent of a 12-division force on the line and ready to go . . . and that is the equivalent of 42 U.S. divisions in Europe rather than the 6-plus divisions you maintain.'"
Haig's arithmetic apparently reflects the U.S. population -- more than three times as large as West Germany's -- and was meant to show the relative burden of Bonn's army to West Germany.
Haig said he is a "proponent for a more balanced view, a proponent for the view that both the U.S. and its European partners need to do more and haven't done as much as they should."
In fact, Haig pointed out the European trend on defense spending for the past 10 years has been upward, amounting to about a 22 percent overall increase, and that the U.S. trend, except for the last two years, has been downward.
Haig quickly added that the U.S. increase was "only because of the American Congress," apparently catching himself before he appeared to give the Carter administration credit.
"I've got a red light on," said Pressler, meaning his time for questioning was up. "It should have been on me," Haig joked.