Ask for the French position on "Star Wars" and your attention is directed to a carefully crafted statement by the French ambassador to a Geneva disarmanent conference last June. Given the timing and the circumstances, it had all the public resonance of a polite cough. But in the confines of U.S. policy-making circles, it came across as a loud, clear, uphelpful shout.
It deserves more attention than it got, because it remains the basis for the French critique of Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and for wider European concerns over the "new defense technologies." The French are fiercely attached to their status as an independent nuclear power and to what this means for their own and Europe's defense. Their case against Star Wars, what's more, is roughly the same as that of Britain, possesor of the only other European nuclear capability.
The French and British concerns are thus going to have to be taken into account in the catchall nuclear negotiations, the more so since they are echoed elsewhere in Europe. Even before the Shultz-Gromyko breakthrough on resuming negotiations, I'm told, "discreet consultations" had already been started between France, Britain, West Germany and other Europeans with a view toward bringing a common "European" approach to bear on the outcome of U.S.-Soviet arms-control talks.
Not that the Geneva outcome has been anything but warmly welcomed as the Reagan administration's briefers have made their rounds of European capitals. What one French official calls "The Yalta Complex" (the European jitters that always accompany direct superpower dealings) has been effectively dealt with, for now. Moreover, as a result of last year's successful effort to deploy U.S. intermediate-range nuclear forces after the breakdown of the negotiations with the Soviets, mechanisms are well established for regular consultation of the Atlantic allies.
There's one important difference this time around, however. The INF deployment derived from a European initiative; opposition came from within NATO's member nations. The governments were committed to an established course of action, and the heavy- handed Soviet propaganda campaign was a dismal flop. By contrast, the new (and to many Europeans) unsettling element in the coming arms control negotiations was exclusively made in America.
Thus, the SDI provides a riper opportunity for what one American diplomat called Soviet "wedge-driving" between the United States and Europe than was the case with INF. That is the plain implication of the language of the prevailing French position as it was presented last June:
"Deterrence, which has played an essential role in maintaining peace in Europe, is based on the maintenance . . . of an assured capacity for response. But France, like the entire international community, can only be concerned today when it sees the appearance of new technologies that could threaten the stability -- and thus the peace -- that has resulted so far from the invulnerability of the means of nuclear response. . . . A situation in which each of the two principal powers sought to make its territory totally invulnerable would be fraught with danger."
The French leave room for rigidly controlled technological study. But an unrestrained race to research and develop a foolproof nuclear defense system, they argue, would not only lead inexorably to deployment if past experience is any guide. It would also stimulate an unrestrained race to produce a foolproof offense.
Specifically, the French want (1)a "strict limitation" on particularly those anti-satellite systems aimed at high- orbit targets, and (2)a five-year renewable ban on both testing and deployment of new weaons systems designed to destroy ballistic missiles or space satellites. No such conditions are likely to be attached in the early stage to the forthcoming nuclear-arms negotiations.
The nub of all this is that the French and many Europeans would rather cling to the known and, so far, proven status quo. The uncertainties of unknown and unproven new technologies translate into insecurity. And a European sense of insecurity, the French contend, only plays into the hands of the Soviets.
The French insist they do not oppose new ideas as such. Their concern is with the care that is taken in the way that radicallly new strategic concepts are introduced. Talking about "absolutes" strikes French experts as worse than unrealistic, given the current state of the art. It is demoralizing, as well. When Ronald Reagan dreams out loud about a world rid of nuclear weapons, Europeans begin to wonder by what other means they could afford to deter a conventional war, whose devastations they can comprehend in a way that Americans cannot.