The way the opinion-makers of the Western Alliance have been shouting, you could reasonably conclude that public opinion in Europe and the United States was bitterly, even irreconcilably, split on how to deal with the Soviet Union. How much of this uproar reflects widespread public opinion, deeply felt? How much of it is derived from political miscalculation, non-communication and point- scoring for marginal domestic political effect?
You can find some interesting clues in a recent, exhaustive poll conducted in the United States and seven European countries by Louis Harris, under the auspices of the International Herald Tribune and a Paris-based think tank, the Atlantic Institute. What they strongly suggest is that leaders on both sides of the Atlantic are at each other's throats on security and defense issues that are by no means the principal concern of their constituents.
Item: On the question of "your greatest concerns for yourself and your country today," unemployment was on the top of every list. The "threat of war" was only one of the next big worries. There seemed to be very nearly the same level of concern over inflation, "social injustice," crime and excessive government spending. "Inadequate defense" was at the bottom of everybody's list. By a 3-to-1 ratio, Italians are more concerned about crime than about nuclear war.
Item: "Strengthened economic unity in Western Europe" was rated more important to the West's security than anything else by almost all of the Europeans. But more effective cooperation between Europe and the United States (including "greater defense collaboration") was rated more important than "continued dialogue and contacts with the Soviet Union."
Item: The Americans sampled were critical of European policy ("inconsistent . . . insufficient") -- but less so than they were of American policy. Only about one-quarter of the Europeans faulted the United States for not carrying its fair share of the collective defense burden. Closer to one-third of the Europeans thought that Western Europe wasn't doing its bit.
Item:5 A sizable majority in the United States and the seven European countries (France, West Germany, Great Britain, Norway, Spain, The Netherlands and Italy) felt that, as between the Soviet military buildup and the U.S. military buildup, the Soviets were the greatest contributor to "current international tension." On this score, the "extension of Soviet influence" and "U.S. aggressive policies towards the U.S.S.R." were rated about equal as threats to a more tranquil East- West relationship.
Says a summary analysis of the polling: "The threat of war is still a serious concern, but socio-economic factors . . . clearly are more preoccupying than problems of defense" in all the countries surveyed.
What this means, according to an institute briefing paper, is that the tensions at the top "among the elites" have not been "translated, for the most part into mass public opinion." This, in turn, leads the institute to conclude: "Governments are not required for domestic reasons to blame their allies for current difficulties. . . . It is time that governments ask themselves if their disagreements with one another might not be more easily resolvable were the atmosphere less charged with emotion and self-righteousness."