ROME — Washington sees the research program for a space-based missile defense essentially as a military venture. The senior Pentagon officials negotiating agreements for participation by European allies in U.S. research insist on this aspect of President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative.
America's European allies, with the exception of the British, have exactly the opposite view: They emphasize the economic aspect and feel that participation in SDI is chiefly a way for European companies to stay abreast of new technologies. The Germans, after many months of agonizing hesitation, are ready to sign a basic accord with the United States. Now it is the Italians' turn to be in deep trouble.
Just what is SDI, primarily: a military or a commercial venture? Some people in Washington may find all this academic. In fact, it is central to the political debate on this side of the Atlantic.
That the U.S. negotiators want a political endorsement of SDI from the European allies is now quite obvious. In crude terms, it goes like this: "We give you a share in our big $30-billion cake (the amount budgeted for SDI research) and an important access to new technologies. You give us, as a quid pro quo, not only the contribution of your brilliant scientists, but also your political support in our conflict with the Soviets about the space shield."
Even the most enthusiastic supporters of America on this side of the Atlantic complain that the U.S. government does the right thing many times but sometime does it in the worst possible way.
The Germans, the Dutch and now the Italians are eager to portray an eventual SDI agreement as commercial in nature for a very elemental reason: They want to minimize any negative impact on their domestic policy. Italy is a case in point. For years now, the Communist Party, representing 30% of the electorate, has described President Reagan's "Star Wars" plan as an abominable attempt to enlarge the arms race in space. A fraction of the Christian Democrats, of the Socialists and various single-issue movements--the ecologists, the pacifists and the like--strongly oppose the program as well.
Surprising as it may seem, however, participation of Italian scientists and industries in SDI research is not totally excluded by this opposition; the same is also true for the Communists. The official party newspaper, L'Unita, admits--in a rather ambiguous way, to be sure--that the civilian spinoff from SDI research may be worth limited participation of private companies on a purely individual, commercial basis. In any case, they claim, a political agreement with Washington that gives Italian endorsement to U.S. military objectives must be excluded.
What shall the government do? On one side, the real strength and determination of the opposition on this matter is difficult to assess. On the other, the political and diplomatic resources that Italian Premier Bettino Craxi commands are limited. The cumulative effect of these considerations makes Rome want to avoid a frontal clash with both its internal opposition and its American ally.
A way out of the dilemma, some politicians suggest, would be for the government to let industry be free to participate on its own, without any involvement of the state. But that would meet with a formidable obstacle: Who would be in charge of safeguarding the know-how and data resulting from SDI research?
The problem is not new. During the past decades the Pentagon has frequently stipulated conditions involving classified matters in contracts with European companies. Bilateral agreements between the United States and European nations specify the rules and procedures for security controls. The containment of sensitive areas of production and a discreet surveillance is exercised, in most cases, by national military-intelligence agents. But this is comparatively easy when only a limited number of installations is concerned. If a large number of non-U.S. companies is involved in SDI research--as Washington seems to desire--then problems concerning security cannot be solved at the private level. Specific bilateral rules (which are kept secret) and procedures have to be established, as in the British-U.S. agreement.
But precisely because an agreement with the U.S. government inevitably implies a degree of political involvement in the SDI project, several European government want to avoid it.