There is no doubt that the historic ties between Britain and America will weather the first criticism of the Thatcher government by the Carter administration. Indeed, the episode illustrates the basic identity that keeps the two nations together as well as the changing international situation that requires them to make occasional adjustments.
The reason for the current small bump was the British decision not to follow through on its agreement to the European Community's already watered-down economic sanctions against Iran in support of the United States. Instead of suspending all trade with Iran, the community members decided to limit sanctions to contracts in the future or since the American hostages were taken on Nov. 4 last year. Britain's Parliament refused to go even this far and restricted sanctions to the future contracts.
"We are extremely disappointed to learn that the British Government has decided not to make British sanctions on exports to Iran effective as of Nov. 4, " said the US State Department.
This failure of the Thatcher government to bring Parliament along on the broader economic sanctions followed its failure to bring the British Olympic Committee along on the government's advocacy of joining the US boycott of the Moscow Olympic Games.
"Is Britain for us or against us?" the Americans might ask. As a matter of fact, Lord Carrington, Britain's foreign secretary, recently said that he found in Washington "a sense that Europe was not doing its share in the alliance, a curious feeling that we were not standing up for you when you needed it."
The rise of Europe in prosperity and cooperation is one of the previously mentioned changes requiring transatlantic adjustments. Gone is the situation of grateful clients supporting or not supporting their benefactor. The change is toward allies meeting as equals and finding solidarity through mutuality of interest.
One European view is that, yes, United States leadership is wanted. But leadership here means not taking unilateral action and expecting others to come along but offering initiatives for consultation toward agreed joint action. As the opposition spokesman on foreign affairs, Peter Shore, put it in Britain recently: "It is our judgment, not our obedience, that we offer to our allies and friends."
On the question of sanctions it is not only Britain but other European Community members who have doubts about their efficacy against a country that might simply be hardened by them or nudged toward the Soviet Union. The sanctions also place a proportionately greater economic burden on the allies than on the US.
What emerged in the British pullback on sanctions was the working of the democratic, representative-government system that Britain shares in essence with the US. The government could not override what Parliament decided. Lord Carrington suggests a comparison with America's failure to supply the guns Britain requested for the Royal Ulster Constabulary because voices in Congress have acted against it.
Similarly, where the Soviet Union's Olympic Committee does what Moscow says, the British Olympic Committee exemplified British freedom by deciding to go to the games in defiance of the government's boycott exhortations.
America may be disappointed by the results, but it would be disappointed in graver ways if either Britain or America were to lose the air of freedom that links them even as it allows them to disagree.