American and German officials alike are talking up the Atlantic Alliance, saying that, although there are problems, they are being worked on and the alliance is basically intact. These words are pleasant to hear, but they conceal a host of pushes and pulls that cannot fail to make their effect felt again soon.
It is not just that West Germany's restrained response to the Polish crisis seemed to many Americans to undercut what our ambassador in Bonn, Arthur Burns, rightly called in a Dec. 1 speech the "shared ethos" that is "the basic element that in times of crisis and challenge makes natural allies of the Western democracies."
It is that even before the move on Solidarity in Poland, the sense of American- European, and especially American-German, alienation was deepening, fanned particularly by the debate over nuclear missiles in Europe.
With not too much exaggeration, Burns said the nuclear debate amounted to "a battle for the soul of Europe": either the West reaffirms collective security or, "if such reaffirmation is long postponed or becomes uncertain, there may well be a growing sentiment in America to turn back upon itself and let Europe depend for its security and freedom upon its own resources or upon Soviet good will. Isolationism is by no means the alternative that my country seeks, but . . ."
Referring to political stirrings in Germany and elsewhere in Western Europe, the ambassador brought up the 350,000 American troops in Europe and observed: "They are stationed here to assure the maintenance of peace, so that the democratic way of life in our Western societies can be preserved. They will not stay here if they are not welcome." (Added United Nations envoy Jeane Kirkpatrick after the Polish crisis: "I would suppose ultimately those troops constitute a kind of leverage, that is, a potential leverage.")
This week at his press conference in Washington Helmut Schmidt was asked whether he had clarified or discussed with Reagan Burns' troop-withdrawal "suggestion." He replied with emphasis that Burns had made no such "proposal" and that he had told then-Sen. Mike Mansfield in an earlier round that a withdrawal would mean the United States was abdicating its world role.
In a sense, the threat of troop withdrawal is no more than a metaphor of frustration, verbal evidence of the rawness of Atlantic nerves, a mock lever in political bargaining situations. No serious American wants to alter the commitment that has brought an unprecedented stability and prosperity to the most dangerous corner of the world? Those troops are there, furthermore, to bind Germany as much as to contain the Soviet Union: ask any European. That is why Moscow, under the propaganda, has always accepted the American presence in Europe.
But the troop withdrawal talk is more than a metaphor. I see no signs at all that the Reagan administration has begun to consider seriously the idea of a withdrawal. But perhaps without explicitly grasping all the implications of what it has been doing, it has taken some tentative steps down that road.
1)There is the administration's readiness--matched, I suspect, by congressional and public readiness-- to define withdrawal as extreme but feasible under certain foreseeable circumstances. It's out in the open now.
2.)There is the embrace of a new military strategy calling for Persian Gulf-oriented "maritime superiority" over the Soviet Union. My colleague, George Wilson, described it as "a policy shift that could ultimately bring basic changes in the deployment of U. S. military forces around the world, including a reduction of force in Europe."
3)There is the president's determination to keep up all of the country's traditional foreign commitments. But not even his greatly expanded defense budget--even if it were not subject, as it is, to congressional shrinkage--promises to let him support all those commitments credibly. Inescapably, Earl Ravenal of Georgetown University argues, the United States will be forced to scale down its commitments. NATO, whose cost he puts at over $100 billion a year, is his (and others') prime candidate.
I do not think the alliance is dissolving. But it is worrisome to see, on both sides of the Atlantic, policy makers and publics heading into a critical period on the basis of emotional reactions, unconnected thoughts and half-glimpses. No one seems to have a full view of where we are going. That is where the immediate trouble lies.