Former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger said yesterday it was not easy to find an area of potential crisis in the world these days where the United States and its West European allies were not working against each other, and failure to end such disunity could cause NATO to "disintegrate."
Addressing a gathering here of conservative American and European intellectuals, Kissinger said it was not possible to have the sharply different approaches in the Middle East taken by the United States and West Europeans pursued independently and simultaneously "without undercutting each other and a kind of civil war taking place" between the allies.
"The same is true in Central America and Africa," said the former architect of foreign and national security policy in the Nixon and Ford administrations, deploring the split in the Atlantic Alliance and asking, "How long can this go on?"
"I don't think there is any question but that the alliance is in deep difficulty," Kissinger said, "and we do not do ourselves a favor" by pretending things are not so bad, by papering over sharp differences or putting out joint communiques on touchy subjects that are substitutes for "concrete action."
"How much diversity can we stand?" Kissinger asked. There must be some limits, he said, before NATO becomes only a "consensus of the fearful. If it leads to paralysis and inaction, then the alliance will gradually disintegrate because it will not be relevant to most of the issues that arise."
Even on such fundamental questions as relations with the Communist East, he said, "there is not the beginning of consensus."
"The long-term survival of the West depends on whether we can use the few years of margin we still have to develop a policy and strategy related to our period," he said. The West can "let things drift and paper over crises . . . but that cannot go on forever. Something will happen somewhere along the line . . . ."
Kissinger said he thought it best for the alliance that these disputes be brought to a head but confessed that he did not know how to do this. Perhaps the U.S. government or a group of U.S. and European "wise men" ought to be created to grapple with it, he suggested.
Although Kissinger was a former advocate of increased economic ties to the Communist East as a way to improve western leverage, he said that approach had gotten out of hand, to the point where it was a weapon in Soviet hands. There is now so much western business interest in the East that the threat of cutting it off hurts the West more than the Soviets.
Kissinger recently got himself into trouble with the Reagan administration by writing critical articles on current policy. But yesterday he brushed those aside, telling listeners that Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. had offered him a government job explaining U.S. foriegn policy to the Chinese, "one by one."
Kissinger's gloomy forecast about NATO came one day after a much more strident attack on the Europeans--their governments, peace movements and neutralist trends--by Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary magazine and a founder of the Committee for the Free World, the conservative group that sponsored the three-day meeting here that ended yesterday.
Podhoretz, reflecting the concerns of a growing number of so-called neoconservatives, told the group that "many of us who thought that a resurgence of American power and resolve would stiffen the European spine are now beginning to think we were wrong. We have begun to wonder how much longer the United States can go begging other people to allow it to defend them."
Several European conservatives, who express concern over some developments in Europe but who feel the Americans have exaggerated and in some ways contributed to the dangers, shot back at Podhoretz. His assault was "too intemperate to help solve the problem," declared British historian and parliamentarian Hugh Thomas. The pacifist movement in Europe today was no bigger than it had been at times in the 1950s, Thomas said, and it was of no electoral importance except in West Germany. Even there, he said, the events in Poland may overwhelm the pacifist-neutralist groups.
Johannes Gross, an editor of the West German magazine Capital, agreed that Podhoretz remarks "tinged with self-pity" were "precisely what doesn't help" and constituted "a gross misrepresentation of what is going on in Europe."
Gross also thought the pacifist-neutralist movement would be greatly reduced this year in West Germany. While demonstrations by 10,000 persons against Haig's visit to Berlin last fall captured headlines, of much greater significance, he said, was the ouster from the Berlin government of the Social Democrats by the conservative Christian Democrats.
Gross, Thomas and several others suggested what had really changed in this past year was Washington not Europe, and that Europeans were not getting "clear signals about what policies entail" from the Reagan administration, as Gross put it.
Jean-Francois Revel, a leading French neoconservative and former editor of the magazine L'Express, said that while Europeans need to improve their resolve "we also have the impression of passivity on this side of the Atlantic."
He cited the continued shipments of grain by the Reagan administration to Moscow and the licensing of International Harvester to build a plant in the Soviet Union that could be used for military vehicles. Not allowing the construction contract "could bankrupt" the American firm, Revel said he is told. "But that is exactly what Germans say about the new gas pipeline" from Russia that the United States wants halted, he pointed out.
Revel talked about uncertainty in the United States over whether to force a default on East European loans, about protests over draft registration that cast doubt on whether American youth will fight, about quick resumption of arms talks after the Polish invasion, about American scientists who protest American curbs on technical export trade.
"America has spoken for the last 10 years in a very uncertain voice," added Thomas, "and you can't expect so much from Europe" so fast. "You can't push that aside in 10 minutes," he said.
Leopold Labedz, Polish-born editor of Survey and Encounter magazines in England, said that what is happening in Western Europe is predictable. When the United States comes on strong, then Europeans fear war. When the United States is weak, then lack of leadership is the issue. So the Americans, to some, always are doing something wrong.
In effect, he said, that is nothing new. The point, upon which there was general agreement, is that something needs to be done about it and that the answer lies in both leadership and public communications on both sides of the alliance.