Foreign ministers of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization agreed today to temporarily bypass their divisions over the Soviet natural gas pipeline and launched wide-ranging studies into the economic aspects of the East-West relationship.
"The ministers agreed on the basic considerations of what is necessary for the West's security in the economic field," Canadian Foreign Minister Allan MacEachen said in announcing the decision.
The Reagan administration, which banned sales of equipment to the Soviets for the pipeline in retaliation for the military crackdown in Poland, has imposed sanctions against companies in Britain, France, West Germany and Italy after parts made under U.S. license were shipped. The sanctions led to a bitter dispute over an issue the United States had hoped would be a point of Western unity in opposition to Poland's suppression of the independent trade union Solidarity.
The administration contends that economic pressure on the Soviet Union will lead Moscow to influence events in Warsaw.
Since the sanctions were imposed, the United States has said it would welcome alternatives, and the agreements reached here today appear to be the first serious effort to find those alternatives, a point made by senior administration sources in welcoming the initiatives.
French Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson, a bitter foe of the sanctions, spoke positively of the agreements.
"The decision to discuss the overall policy and economic relations is something new," he said. "The United States is consulting its allies before making major economic decisions."
MacEachen was host to the unusual meeting of the 16 NATO officials at a rustic lodge nestled in the Laurentian Mountains about 55 miles north of Montreal. West Germany, which changed governments Friday, was represented by a top-level career diplomat; the other nations sent foreign ministers.
MacEachen emphasized that the steps announced today in no way imply "economic war or trade war" against the Soviet Union and its allies but are designed to probe areas in which the Western alliance might be strategically vulnerable to the Warsaw Pact because of economic relationships.
The studies, which one minister involved in the talks emphasized were "operational," will probe energy, credits, agricultural commodities, high-technology goods with military applications as well as those for more general use and general trade levels.
The studies will be undertaken in a variety of forums, including the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, where Japan also is involved; the International Energy Agency; COCOM, the committee that deals with sales of military-related technology, and special sessions of finance ministers as well as the regular economic summit meetings of the heads of the major industrial states.
MacEachen said no timetable was set but that there is "a sense of urgency" about the project.
The 16 officials met alone, except for interpreters, for a total of eight hours in four meetings this weekend. The idea of holding informal talks without aides first originated with Italian Foreign Minister Emilio Colombo and was meant to follow the example of similar meetings that have been held for several years within the European Community.
After a hesitant opening session, according to one participant from a key European country, the group began to deal with major issues.
"There was an identity of views" fairly quickly on security policies, on the military aspects of force levels and the necessity to pursue arms negotiations with the Soviet Union, the minister said.
The real point of discussion was on the gas pipeline and energy. whether security policy should be only military or should be something more, such as economic policy.
"These discussions brought to the fore that a global policy also should include the economic issues," the official said.
MacEachen stressed that the decision to develop a broader policy on trade with the Soviet Bloc did not imply a change by either side in the short run on the sanctions. It was unclear whether the results of the studies launched today will satisfy the Reagan administration's stated goal of developing wide-ranging and effective economic measures for dealing with the Soviet Union that could replace the pipeline sanctions.
In recent weeks the Reagan administration and the four European countries have become increasingly unyielding in their positions on the pipeline, with powerful domestic political considerations added to the foreign policy mix.
Tensions on the issue were so great that some European policy makers had begun to express fears of long-term damage to the alliance.
MacEachen attempted to put those fears to rest, saying, "Anyone who thinks the alliance is in bad shape is dead wrong. Anyone who thinks Americans and Europeans can't get along is dead wrong."