BERN, SWITZERLAND — If an aim of Soviet diplomacy is to separate America from Europe, then the U.S. performance here last week at the conference on human contacts must look, to the Kremlin, like the beginning of a dream come true.
For the first time in any international forum since World War II, the United States voted alone, against all the nations of Europe, to block adoption of modest but not insignificant measures that might have helped improve human contacts under the 1975 Helsinki Agreements. The American reasoning was that the measures were not enough, and that it wanted compliance with old measures first.
This may be a perfectly defensible and popular stand for the Reagan Administration in terms of domestic politics, but it left the Europeans baffled, irritated and, in some cases, angry. One Western ambassador said indignantly after the U.S. action: "The Helsinki Agreements, after all, are about security and cooperation in Europe, and if the Europeans, both East and West, have reached agreement, even if it is only on minor compromises and improvements, what sense does it make for the United States to veto all of us?
"In Europe, we have many more direct and pressing problems of human contacts with the East Bloc than you have on the other side of the Atlantic . . . . We ought to take whatever small steps we can get, whenever we can get them."
This was not a crisis in American-European relations. But it is part of a pattern, another example of "go-it-alone" diplomacy by an Administration determined to be seen as standing tough and tall in foreign policy, particularly in matters involving the Soviet Union.
This U.S. post-Geneva mood is that small steps in East-West relations are out; the Administration now demands big changes in Soviet behavior as the price of progress. From an American standpoint, the mood seems appropriate as long as the Soviet Union is seen to be obstructionist, as it usually has been in these meetings under the "Helsinki process."
But in Bern, after six weeks of stonewalling, the Soviets suddenly turned flexible, at last ready and apparently anxious for agreement. Such moments of opportunity do not come often in East-West relations, and the Europeans at once set out to grab what they could--only to find Uncle Sam finally saying no because the outcome wasn't good enough.
European feelings were exacerbated because the American delegation here had tentatively accepted a final document, paragraph by paragraph, subject of course to clearance from Washington.
In the subsequent confusion, time was important. Last Sunday, the nine neutral and nonaligned countries among the 35 signers of the Helsinki agreements presented their draft of a final compromise on a "take it or leave it" basis. But when the document was transmitted to Washington, discussions were still under way with the Soviets to try to work out an East-West draft independent of what the neutrals had produced. These discussions continued all night, until the Russians suddenly found a technical pretext to walk out at 4 a.m. Monday--or 10 p.m. Sunday night in Washington.
Then, at 10 a.m. Monday in Bern, when the weary delegates resumed talk, the Soviets suddenly agreed to take up the draft offered by the neutral and nonaligned states. Almost at once the agreement began falling into place. Clause by clause, the Soviets and the East Bloc began accepting the neutral draft, and the European members of the Atlantic Alliance quickly lined up as well. The American delegation was not all that happy but U.S. Ambassador Michael Novak was carried along, somewhat reluctantly and with reservations about what Washington might say. By midday in Bern, 6 a.m. in Washington, everybody thought there was agreement.
A plenary meeting was postponed while the American delegation awaited instructions from Washington. Soon further word was circulated that Washington wanted changes in the final draft. Nobody, least of all the Soviets, was prepared to go back and reopen discussion. Phone lines to Washington began to burn.
From Bonn, Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher put in an urgent call to Secretary of State George P. Shultz. But the secretary was off with his family on a holiday outing. So the German delegation asked for further postponement. When Genscher did reach Shultz, the answer was no. Finally, at about 9:30 p.m., 12 hours after the tentative American acceptance, Ambassador Novak had the unenviable task of informing 34 delegations that "after very careful review, my government cannot give its consent." Silence greeted his declaration.
The European view was summarized by the British ambassador, Anthony Williams, who told the final plenary meeting: "There were pointers in this document toward more humane arrangements for human contacts, and in our view the potentialities of those pointers . . . outweighed the document's obvious weaknesses. The American assessment was more pessimistic."
It is much easier for America to stand tall against Soviet intransigence than Soviet flexibility. There are big stakes in this diplomatic chess game, and it is unwise, if not inept, to allow the Soviet Union to pocket even one pawn for free.