Washington — Top priority for the Reagan administration overseas: managing the alliance. Despite vigorous new leadership on the part of the United States, America's European allies are disagreeing with the US on a wide range of issues.
The points of contention stretch from the questions of economics and arms control to the treatment of South Africa and El Salvador. Further down the road , potential disagreements loom over decreases in European defense spending and the Americans' handling of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
In no area of the world, even as close to home as Central America, can the US simply dictate polity to its European allies.
Much of this is to be expected, given the revival of West Europe's power, influence, and assertiveness over the past three decades. The coming to power of conservative government in the United States and a Socialist regime in France has created new diversity within the alliance. But part of the problem, too, is European qualms over the foreign policy changes that the Reagan administration has been making.
All of this will require careful diplomacy and tends to enhance the role of Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., the only top member of the Reagan administration who seems to have the background and experience needed to deal with those qualms.
Here are some of the leading European concerns:
* Economics. The West Europeans continue to complain that America's high interest rates result in a slowdown of their economies at a time of increasing unemployment. So far there is no evidence that US interest rates will significantly decrease in the months ahead, despite the recent drop in the prime rate.
* Defense. The US and its West European allies are committed, in theory at least, to a "two track" policy of installing new American nuclear weapons in Western Europe while seeking arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union. But many Europeans are convinced that the Reagan administration is not seriously interested in negotiating with the Soviets.
For the Europeans, detente with the Soviet Union has produced tangible benefits. Reagan administration officials tend to see few benefits from it for the US. Some of these officials are concerned that previous SALT agreements with the Soviets merely lulled the West into a false sence of security.
* Relations with the developing nations. The West Europeans tend to see the source of many problems in local inequities and in regional disputes. The Reagan administration tends to see the Soviets -- or Cubans -- behind many of those same problems.
In El Salvador, for example, many Europeans believe that an insurgency would exist with or without Cuban support. The Reagan administration points to the Cubans as the main cause of the guerrilla war.
In southern Africa, the Europeans listen with sympathy to black African charges against the South African regime. The Reagan administration, on the other hand, emphasizes the economic and strategic importance of South Africa and the Cuban involvement in nearby Angola.
Differences between the US and Europeans on these issues were dramatized recently: (1) when France joined Mexico in formally recognizing the Salvadoran guerrillas as a force to negotiate with the US-backed Salvadoran government; and (2) when key West European nations strongly condemned South Africa's invasion of Angola. Secretary of State Haig seemed to go out of his way out to criticize the South Africans in a press conference Aug. 28.
Yet Mr. Haig is seen by many on both sides of the Atlantic as the only top American official capable of bridging the gap between the US and Europe. Haig is said to be concerned, as many administration officials are, about "neutralist" tendencies in Europe. But he has chosen to deal with this on the level of quiet diplomacy, an approach that is preferred by the European leaders.
In a recent interview with the Monitor, Haig indicated that the US cannot simply impose its view of East-West trade relations on the Europeans. The US is not a "free agent," Haig said. It must conduct its policies in concert with the other Western industrialized nations.
These are welcome words to European ears. But some well-placed Defense Department officials argue that Haig has been overly sensitive to European concerns, particularly when it comes to West Germany's Chancellor Helmut Schmidt.
"Haig has got a Schmidt-oriented view of things," complained one high-ranking Defense Department official.
Haig had favored postponing President Reagan's recent decision on full production of the controversial neutron warhead, partly because he thought it maight make it more difficult for Schmidt and other European leaders to carry out the earlier allied decision to deploy new medium-range nuclear missiles in Western Europe.