The injection of President Reagan's space weapons research project into the Geneva negotiating framework has sharply heightened the talks' importance for Washington's European allies.
The space project, known formally as the Strategic Defense Initiative but widely referred to as "Star Wars," also carries the potential for causing dangerous new tension within the alliance, tension that Moscow will try to exploit in its effort to wrest concessions from the Americans at the conference table.
The stakes are high for all the European countries, but there is special significance for France and Britain. For should the "Star Wars" notion precipitate either a joint Soviet-American research project on defense, as has been suggested, or a defensive weapons race, the modest nuclear arsenals of France and Britain--a total of 162 missiles at present--could quickly be rendered useless.
Questions have already been raised by members of the British Parliament, challenging the government's wisdom in spending $10 billion to upgrade Britain's nuclear deterrent with U.S. Trident missiles.
There are additional implications for France, whose nuclear independence constitutes a fundamental part of its foreign policy, if not its national identity. Possible technological spinoffs from a five-year, $26-billion U.S. space weapons research program could work against French dreams of leading an all-Europe technological renaissance.
French Defense Minister Charles Hernu told a recent international gathering in Munich, "The West should not give up what it has (the doctrine of nuclear deterrence) for a future it knows little about."
France reportedly tried but failed last fall, at a meeting in Rome of the West European Union, to organize a common European front against putting weapons in space.
Key European allies, including Britain, West Germany and Italy, have supported the research phase of the project. London's endorsement was solid, while the backing from Bonn and Rome was more cautious. The Europeans were motivated in part by the possibility of lucrative research contracts but also by the realization that it would be easier to exert political influence over the program from within than as outsiders.
Moscow sees in West Europe's cautious approach an opportunity not only to block the project but to divide the allies as well. Just last week, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko warned his West German counterpart, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, that any West German involvement in research on space weapons could threaten the entire disarmament process.
Gromyko's target was carefully chosen, for he knows that no government is more anxious than West Germany's to see the disarmament talks get off to a good start.
In West Germany, the renewed Geneva talks constitute a strong domestic political boost for Chancellor Helmut Kohl's center-right coalition government. Keeping the "Star Wars" idea from blocking progress at Geneva will also be important to Kohl.
The prospect of substantive negotiations proves, in the view of the West German government, that its critics in the large, diverse peace movement have been wrong. Peace movement spokesmen have maintained that the 1983 deployment of U.S. nuclear missiles in West Germany, Britain and Italy cast doubt on all further arms control talks.
"I never shared this doubt," Kohl crowed recently.
But Kohl and other West German leaders like to describe the Geneva negotiations as part of a larger East-West reconciliation within which Kohl can begin to rebuild his country's ostpolitik , or eastern policy.
The chill in U.S.-Soviet relations is cited as the key reason why Bonn's domestically important links with East Germany have been put on ice and why planned visits by East European leaders to Bonn were called off last fall.
The existence of 17 million East Germans, plus 2 million German ethnics living elsewhere in Eastern Europe, and important trade ties combine to make relations with the East a highly sensitive political issue for West Germany.
West European leaders have already begun pressing Washington to avoid any immediate confrontation on space weapons in order to allow progress on other fronts. "Our concern," said a West German official who deals with security issues, "is that (space weapons) may push everything else aside."
For him and many West Europeans, "everything else" means the medium-range missile issue that so dominated the political landscape here two years ago, and continues to simmer in Belgium and the Netherlands, where deployment of U.S. cruise missiles has yet to begin.
Moscow is also likely to try to exploit the different priorities within the Western Alliance, possibly by offering substantial reductions in the number of its SS-20 missiles targeted on Western Europe in return for concessions on space weapons. The Soviets could then attempt to pressure allied governments and European anti-nuclear protest movements to back the proposal.
Moscow has already said that there can be no agreement in any one negotiating area without agreement in all three--strategic weapons, intermediate-range weapons and space weapons--a view not shared in Washington. West European leaders insist that Moscow's tactics will fail.
"The strategic unity of the alliance must be maintained," a West German disarmament specialist said.
Despite their misgivings, West Europeans appear to have few options but to go along with the space weapons project and hope for the best. More than any other issue in recent years, the space weapons debate has exposed the narrow limits of European maneuverability in defining Western Alliance defense strategy.
Walter Stuetzle, an editor at the Stuttgarter Zeitung and a respected commentator on disarmament issues, said, "It is an uncomfortable admission of the impotence which has been with us for the past 35 years."
The allies' qualms about space weapons were voiced by Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi during his official visit to Washington last week. Craxi had wanted Reagan to declare space weapons negotiable at Geneva, but, after meeting with the President, he offered restrained support for the research program. Craxi said he had urged the United States to engage in further negotiations before deploying the system, which Reagan has promised to do.
Paradoxically, the successful start of the Euromissile deployment, the decline of virulent anti-nuclear protest movements and the shift in focus away from European-based missiles have all served to diminish the influence of Washington's allies.
With the missiles in place and the streets quiet, the sense of urgency has passed, and with it the need to accommodate European governments. The lone European avenue of influence on the negotiations will be through the close consultations promised by Washington.
Europeans involved in the 1983 Euromissile consultative process say it functioned effectively in the later stages of the negotiations. They say, too, that the process has worked well in preparing for the new talks in Geneva.
On the eve of the negotiations, they expressed confidence that the procedure would offer them a valuable conduit for their ideas.
Still, consultations on space weapons and strategic missiles are not likely to be as intensive as those on medium-range weapons, an area where European interests are directly affected. But at this point America's allies have little choice but to accept what is available.