"If silence is golden, George Shultz must be the most valuable asset the U.S. administration possesses." The comment by a senior European Community commissioner, made at the end of the Euro-American trade summit meeting in Brussels last week, reflected the adjustment Europeans have had to make to a radically new style of U.S. secretary of state.
The overall European judgment on Shultz after a week of meetings with NATO allies is positive. His reticence, his refusal to be drawn into instant judgment and his readiness to see problems in a longer time scale have all favorably impressed the Europeans.
His predecessor, Alexander M. Haig Jr., was also seen as "pro-European" within the Reagan administration. But Haig was a notoriously bad communicator and in his time at the State Department the political divide between the United States and its key European allies widened ominously.
In many ways U.S.-European relations have nowhere to go but up, because 1982 was probably the worst year for the Western Alliance since the days of John Foster Dulles. Not only were there escalating trade conflicts but also an increasing number of political and strategic issues, from the Middle East to the question of a "limited war in Europe," on which European and U.S. views did not coincide.
1983 is going to be an even more critical year. It was accepted during the Brussels talks that the world recession could turn into a depression, while the planned deployment of new medium-range U.S. nuclear missiles in Western Europe may bring to the surface deep-seated European worries about the direction of American nuclear strategy.
Since Shultz's arrival at the State Department, transatlantic relations have improved. Shultz has been credited with using his influence to lift U.S. sanctions against European companies selling equipment for the Soviet gas pipeline and with backing the compromise settlement of the steel war between the United States and the European Community.
Serious problems remain and many agree with the words of the United States ambassador to the European Community, George Vest: "In present economic circumstances, we are not so much in the business of finding solutions to problems but rather of crisis containment." West European officials believe that Shultz intends to take their views more seriously and to throw his weight behind those in Washington who see the folly of an agricultural trade war with Europe in the months ahead.
As a result of Friday's meeting in Brussels, the Reagan administration and the Europeans have given themselves three months to find a way of preventing an agricultural war based on a competition in dumping of surplus food on world markets. The European Community Commission has agreed to look at sacrosanct European farm policy, while Agriculture Secretary John Block has been told to cool his language when threatening retaliatory dumping of American surplus farm products.
Despite Shultz's Treasury and financial background, European officials were less satisfied with what the American delegation, including Treasury Secretary Donald Regan, had to say about the U.S. economic outlook. They still worry that the U.S. federal budget deficit, fed by defense expenditures, will condemn the United States--and the rest of the industrialized world--to a level of interest rates that could turn the recession into a depression.
On the other hand, the Europeans believe that Donald Regan and some of his colleagues are coming around to their view on the need to act more vigorously to stabilize currency exchange rates. And they are relieved that the Americans now acknowledge that the dangers of a possible international debt and banking crisis are so great that far-reaching measures are needed to strengthen the International Monetary Fund.
At NATO, Shultz obtained solid backing for the American "zero option" strategy in the nuclear arms reduction talks with the Soviet Union in Geneva.
But Shultz will not be deceived by this display of formal unity. Whether 1983 will see the gap between the United States and its European allies narrow or widen will depend more than anything else on how the United States conducts Geneva arms negotiations.
Shultz returns to Washington knowing that if the United States is blamed for failure at Geneva, the hairline cracks in NATO could turn into a major split.