Washington — Despite talk of a split among the Western allies, a limited trade and grain embargo against the Soviets is holding reasonably well, according to Carter administration officials.
One senior official suggests that this underlying reality may prove to be far more important some months from now than the current, much-publicized differences between the United States and France over efforts to coordinate allied actions.
But coming to terms with the French is obviously going to require delicate diplomacy from Washington. Domestic politics on both sides of the Atlantic have injected an element of emotion into the current dispute between the French and Americans over the form and timing of a meeting of allied foreign ministers planned for Feb. 20, which has now been called off.
President Carter is running for re-election, and US officials have an interest in demonstrating the President's toughness and ability to lead. But President Giscard D'Estaing of France also is running for re-election, even though his election will not come until next year.
However much he may cooperate with President Carter in a private way, the French leader has an interest in asserting France's independence. He must show that the French do not automatically fall into lockstep with the United States every time the US makes major defense and foreign policy shifts, such as have occurred in relationship to Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf.
The Europeans traditionally have been more cautious than the Americans in dealing with such matters. They are on the front line with the Soviet Union. They depend more on Persian Gulf oil than does the U.S. They have more to lose, in terms of trade and technology sales to the Soviets, than does the US.
"In situations like this we plunge, and we plunge in public," said a senior US official. "The Europeans take it very carefully.
"But the reality is that where the French have said they would not undercut us -- in terms of grain and trade, for instance -- they are living up to their word totally."
US officials say that when it comes to the question of defending oil lines from the Gulf, France is playing a major role through deployment of its sizable Indian Ocean fleet. The West Germans, for their part, are playing a leading role in bolstering the economy of Turkey, a NATO ally situated to the west of the Gulf.
Both the French and the British have demonstrated their interest in stabilizing the situation in Southwest Asia by sending high-ranking officials -- the French president and British foreign secretary -- on trips to the region.
Despite initial opposition from the French to a boycott of the summer Olympics, US officials think there is still a 50-50 chance that France will go along. But President Carter offended the French by failing to consult them on this. He suddenly announced the US decision to boycott unless Soviet troops are withdrawn from Afghanistan and then launched a strong public campaign aimed at bringing friends and allies along.
The European Community (EC) is to hold a meeting in Rome on Feb. 19 to grapple with the Olympic question. The EC already has given the United States assurances that it will not undercut the limited US grain embargo against the Soviet Union. And the EC has cut off subsidies for sales of poultry and butter to the Soviets.
The Soviets, meanwhile, are said to be making a concerted effort to split the West Europeans away from the US. Senior administration officials say they expect the Kremlin to order token troop withdrawals from Afghanistan in order to encourage such a split.
A French diplomat said there was a difference between the French and American views of Soviet intentions in Afghanistan. The French, he said, do not believe that the Russians intend to drive toward the warm waters of the Persian Gulf. And he added that France does not consider the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to be the worst threat to world peace since World War II.
But in reality the US and French views may not diverge so much as it might seem. In his State of the Union address Jan. 4 President Carter modified the statement which he had originally made on the gravity of the Soviet invasion. He said simply that it couldm pose the most serious threat to world peace since the World War II. A senior administration officials summed up one administration view of Soviet intentions for the immediate future as follows: to consolidate the Soviet Army's position in Afghanistan, to deter further international condemnation through cosmetic troop withdrawals, and to exploit Iran's internal difficulties through political intimidation and subversion rather than through a military drive to the Gulf.