With Soviet-American relations back in the deep freeze, Mikhail Gorbachev is again running as a peace candidate in Western Europe and is making headway.
The splits within the Atlantic alliance over the U.S. bombing of Libya and the continuing flurry of disarmament proposals put forward by Gorbachev have underscored the Soviet leader's renewed attention to the impact of public diplomacy on opinion in Western Europe.
Those efforts are discomforting the Reagan admin- istration and West European governments, which argue that Gorbachev's proposals are not only overlapping but frequently contradictory.
Western officials point to the sweeping conventional disarmament proposals Gorbachev made in East Berlin on Friday as a particularly clear case of Soviet public diplomacy undercutting the modest progress that had been made in private negotiations on this subject in Vienna.
A consensus seems to have formed in the Reagan administration that Gorbachev still does not have his act together and is putting out peace proposals willy-nilly. Gorbachev faces such enormous tasks at home and so much opposition within the Kremlin that he is, in this view, bogged down and flailing about with these initiatives to give the impression of movement.
To a number of analysts from both Western and Eastern Europe, however, there is a suspiciously large dose of wishful thinking involved in this American view of the Russian effort. They attribute far more calculation, and control, to Gorbachev.
In the bombing of Libya, the Soviet general secretary backed away from direct confrontation with the United States and sought instead to pick up whatever public relations gains were available through decrying the American reliance on "the law of the jungle."
West European officials did not expect the Soviets to engage themselves directly in defending the unpredictable and unreliable leader of Libya, Muammar Qaddafi. But they are somewhat puzzled by how little the Soviets seem in fact to have done for Qaddafi.
There are no signs, for example, that the Russians, who would have picked up the American F111 bombers leaving from England and other signs of the attack hours before it occurred, passed that information on to Qaddafi. A question being asked in Europe is whether the Russians would have preferred a martyred Qaddafi, with passions running even higher against the United States throughout the Arab world and possibly a more pliable successor regime installed in Tripoli.
Even without this outcome, the Soviets have reason to be pleased by the reaction to the American raid.
The European Parliament, where conservative and middle-of-the-road parties have a numerical majority, voted last Thursday in Strasbourg to condemn in harsh terms the American attack as "a threat to international peace," and anti-American protesters took to the streets of European cities last weekend. The Soviets have portrayed the raid on Libya as merely one part of a pattern of American actions that disregard Gorbachev's strongly manifested desire for a new age of peace.
Echoes of this approach were heard at a conference on East-West relations here last weekend, where delegates from the East lumped the Libyan affair with American refusal to accept a nuclear test ban, aid to Nicaraguan rebels and other U.S. policies.
It is not yet clear that Gorbachev has decided to embark on a widespread campaign similar to the Soviet peace offensives of the 1950s and 1960s that usually took priority over negotiating agreements with the United States. His repeated assertions of willingness to meet with President Reagan suggest that he has not.
But he is using his public disclosures of disarmament proposals to locate and tug at another seam in the fabric of Atlantic unity, much to the annoyance of the Reagan administration, which has asked Gorbachev to forego public diplomacy and to return to secret negotiations as the way to progress.
The public proposals seem to have perplexed Washington and been discounted by American public opinion. But Gorbachev erased any doubt that his intended target is Western Europe in the speech he gave Friday in East Berlin, where he proposed that the Warsaw Pact and NATO should accept sharp reductions in their ground forces so there could be disarmament "from the Atlantic to the Urals."
That phrase was open homage to the late French president, Charles de Gaulle, and his concept of a Europe that took Soviet security interests into consideration.
Moreover, his sweeping proposal on conventional disarmament -- while directly at odds with the modest steps Soviet and U.S. negotiators are reportedly pursuing in force reduction talks in Vienna -- skillfully reinforced a proposal Gorbachev unveiled in January on intermediate-range nuclear missiles stationed in Europe.
Far from being willy-nilly, the conventional disarmament proposal appears to have been carefully calculated for maximum impact in Western Europe.
In January, Gorbachev moved a long way toward accepting President Reagan's "zero-zero" proposal, which would do away with Soviet SS20s and American Pershing and cruise missiles in the European theater.
The offer is conditioned on the British and French accepting numerical limits on their national nuclear arsenals, something these two countries have said they would not do.
But even the hazy prospect of a U.S.-Soviet deal on intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) has caused concern within West European governments worried by the Soviet Union's overwhelming superiority in ground forces.
"An agreement to eliminate INF would reopen the debate" on a number of troubling questions including Soviet superiority in conventional and chemical weapons in Europe, and would have to take those concerns into account, according to Stefano Silvestri, an Italian strategic affairs expert who is particularly knowledgeable about NATO governments' internal positions on arms control.
Silvestri expressed this view in a paper he prepared for the conference here of the New York-based Institute for East-West Security Studies.
Hours before he delivered it, Gorbachev was on the stump in East Berlin delivering his response to the concern about linking an INF agreement to negotiations on conventional forces.