When British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher visits President Reagan at Camp David on Saturday, it will be the first time that she has been in the United States since the American bombing of Libya. The two leaders have always enjoyed an excellent working relationship, and British cooperation in that operation confirmed her standing as the foreign head of government who is closest to the President.
But now fundamental differences have emerged between them on an issue of the first importance, which Thatcher will be eager to discuss without risking a quarrel.
I am referring not to international terrorism, though they will certainly talk a good deal about that, but to international disarmament. Usually European leaders exercise their influence to try to persuade the United States to go further in negotiation with the Soviet Union. Now there has been a role reversal.
Thatcher will not be suggesting that Reagan give up the Strategic Defense Initiative and accept the package of proposals on the table at Reykjavik. Instead, she will be saying in effect: Mr. President, have you really thought through the implications of those other proposals?
What is particularly disturbing to the British government is the way Reagan has continued to speak about disarmament since Reykjavik, and his deliberate inclusion of the contentious items in that package in his renewed disarmament proposals after the summit meeting.
Reagan's repeated references to his hope of totally removing nuclear weapons from the world are disconcerting to the British.
When I interviewed Thatcher last March, she told me quite specifically: "I cannot see a world without nuclear weapons. Let me be practical about it. The knowledge is there to make them. So do not go too hard for that pie in the sky because, while everyone would like to see it, I do not believe it is going to come about."
It is discomforting for Thatcher when the President of the United States keeps speaking as if he is about to join the peace movement. That is bound to give encouragement to her opponents at home and to undermine confidence in the basic rationale of her defense policy.
The specific American proposal that is most alarming to the British government is for the elimination of all ballistic weapons after 10 years. The idea of reducing them by 50%--to 1,600 launchers and 6,000 warheads each for the United States and the Soviet Union over the first five years of an agreement--is a different matter. That would not upset the military balance of power between the East and the West.
But Britain does not believe that the American nuclear protection of Western Europe, which has sustained the peace for 40 years, would be credible if it depended on non-ballistic missiles.
There is not, it is true, much chance that ballistic missiles will ever be given up entirely. Neither the United States nor the Soviet Union is likely to believe that the other would abide by such an agreement. But this means that to negotiate such a proposition would actually increase instability between East and West, as well as upsetting allies, to no good purpose.
Britain is not happy either about the Administration's willingness to give up all intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe. But Thatcher is unlikely to make much of this criticism at Camp David because the zero option for Euromissiles was once official policy of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
That, however, was before the missiles were actually deployed in Western Europe. After that it became NATO policy to try to get rid of all intermediate missiles on both sides anywhere in the world. Then in the run-up to Reykjavik the ambition was to secure a reduction to about 100 warheads on each side in Europe, with another 100 each elsewhere.
Yet it was neither of these propositions that ended up on the table in Reykjavik. There the discussion focused on the elimination of the missiles in Europe, while the Soviet Union was to be allowed to keep 100 in Asia and the United States 100 at home.
That would offer the worst of all worlds to Western Europe. These missiles are highly mobile, so the Soviet quota could easily be switched from Asia whenever Moscow wanted. But it is hard to believe that once the American missiles had been taken home they would ever be deployed in Western Europe again.
A world with no ballistic missiles and no Euromissiles, which is what is ultimately envisaged in the U.S. proposals, would invite Soviet pressure on Western Europe unless there were at the same time the most stringent safeguards to ensure a balance of conventional strength in Europe.
The simple message that Thatcher will need to get across at Camp David is that the West should not lose its enthusiasm for arms control, but that what is required is a practical, not a visionary, approach.