The refusal of this country's three most important West European allies to attend a U.S.-proposed meeting on terrorism was no great tragedy in itself. But the incident dramatizes the deterioration in European respect for American leadership.
The unraveling of alliance relationships may reach crisis proportions if President Reagan accepts the Pentagon's proposals for the early deployment of a space-based missile system and proceeds with a reinterpretation of the anti-ballistic-missile treaty to make that possible. Fortunately, he now seems disposed to postpone the decision for awhile.
Reagan has often boasted that under his leadership U.S.-allied relationships are better than at any time in recent history. Until lately, there was truth in the claim.
The allies have always been nervous over this President's shoot-from-the-lip rhetoric about nuclear-war fighting, his bold talk about rolling back the Soviet Union's "evil empire" and his unwillingness to control subordinates who actually oppose arms control.
As nations that are fundamentally dependent on American military strength to guarantee their own security, however, those allies welcomed the rebuilding of both U.S. power and self-confidence.
Equally attractive to allied governments was Reagan's ability to work his will, most of the time, on Congress. The perception was that if this President struck a deal on arms cuts, trade or other controversial issues, he could make it stick.
Unfortunately, the President has gone a long way in the last four months toward frittering away his diplomatic assets.
European leaders were not amused by disclosures that at the time Reagan and his emissaries were hectoring them to make no deals with terrorists he was busy shipping arms to Iran. The element of deception bothered them less, however, than the suggestion of presidential recklessness and incompetence.
To quote an influential West German editor, "What are we to believe? If Reagan was personally responsible for the crazy Iran policy, that is very disturbing. But if he wasn't, and was allowing free rein to people like Col. (Oliver L.) North, that's frightening, too."
This sort of recklessness, the editor observed, plays into the hands of those in West Germany who want their government to distance itself from Washington and move closer to the Soviets.
Such misgivings were hardly assuaged when Reagan responded to the recent spate of kidnapings in Lebanon by sending a large fleet into the eastern Mediterranean--but to what purpose?
Military action obviously would be more likely to result in the death of American and European hostages than in their rescue. And if the whole exercise was a bluff, the only practical result was to underscore the ineffectiveness of U.S. military power in dealing with terrorism.
The French, British and West Germans did not want to be associated, even indirectly, with a possible American operation inside Lebanon or Syria. Hence their refusal to attend the terrorism conference.
Far more damaging, potentially, is the Administration's handling of "Star Wars."
Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative was originally supposed to be a research program aimed at providing the basis for a decision in the early 1990s on whether the deployment of an effective missile defense system was feasible.
The Europeans favor a vigorous research program. But the British and the West Germans, when asked to lend diplomatic support to the project, wanted reassurance that (1) a Star Wars system would not be deployed without prior consultations with the allies and negotiations with Moscow, and (2) that the ABM treaty would meanwhile not be violated.
Reagan gave his word on both points.
In the last few weeks, however, Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger has joined Administration and congressional hard-liners in pushing for a presidential decision in favor of the early deployment of a partial system--a move aimed at nailing down an irreversible commitment while Reagan is still in office. The President is also being pressed to approve a broad interpretation of the ABM treaty to allow the testing of space-based elements.
Congressional leaders got the impression that Reagan was inclined toward a go-ahead-now decision. Late last week, however, the word was that Secretary of State George P. Shultz had persuaded Reagan to put off a decision until a State Department study of the legal issues can be completed.
For a President who sees himself as a prudent guardian of the people's tax money, an early deployment would be outlandish for reasons totally apart from alliance relationships. The technology for the space-based portion of the system has not been sufficiently proved out, and can't be within Reagan's remaining two years. Even if the technology was ready, a partial system would be only partly effective--a dubious investment of many billions of dollars.
The diplomatic fallout from a precipitate move toward deployment could be extremely damaging. It would necessitate an early abrogation of the ABM treaty, or a reinterpretation so broad as to constitute an abrogation in the eyes of friend and potential foe alike. And if the fateful decisions were made in the face of objections from the allies, it would become politically painful for West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to avoid an open break with Reagan on a whole range of issues.
Keeping such an alliance healthy is a two-way street. The Europeans don't always remember that. But their concerns about SDI are very real, and cannot be ignored without serious and possibly lasting damage to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
The betting nonetheless is that Reagan, after some hesitation, will succumb to the entreaties of the hard-liners and order a go-ahead toward an early deployment.
Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) of the Senate Armed Services Committee warned the President Friday that an abrupt change in the U.S. definition of the ABM treaty would provoke a "profound" confrontation between the Congress and the Administration.
Reagan could save himself and his country a lot of trouble by paying heed.