London — At no time in the past 50 years so far as one can remember has the British-American alliance been so severely tested. And there may be bigger tests to come. Personally I do not recall an American administration viewed with such evident dismay as President Rea-gan's now is in Britain.
It is important therefore that the differing positions on vital questions should be clearly understood. Aside from the question of sanctions against the Soviets aimed at reducing the pressure they exert against the Polish people, the two most vital areas of difference are the Falkland Islands and Northern Ire-land.
Many close to the United States administration appear to see both as simple colonial issues. There are British settlers in the South Atlantic on distant islands claimed by Argentina and there are British colonists in the northeastern corner of a partitioned Ireland. The ''colons,'' so some in the US appear to say , should come to terms with Argentina on the one hand and Ireland on the other or go home for the sake of world peace. One states the argument in its simplest and most extreme form for the sake of clarity.
But of course the British do not see either case in anything like these terms. Indeed they would say that it is this view rather than their own which will endanger peace.
To the British the main issues in the Falklands dispute besides the basic division over sovereignty are the right of any homo-geneous population to self-determination, the right of people of one nationality to freedom from control by another, the right of all to freedom from aggression, and the duty of all to settle international disputes peacefully.
Was not the United Nations founded on these very principles? If they are to be over-ridden for reasons of expediency will the UN be stronger or weaker? Will peace be strengthened or threatened?
Many Britons would ask a further question: If it is wrong for the Soviet Union to impose its will on the people of Poland against their expressed wishes why is it not equally wrong for Argentina to impose its will on the people of the Falkland Islands?
It has been noted here with some distress that the resolution the US supported in the UN suggested that ''the interests'' of the Falklanders should be taken into account. Not their wishes, their ''interests''; as undemo-cratic a proposition as it is possible to imagine. It is made possible, one would suppose , only by accepting the ''colonialist'' view of the Falklands situation.
Most British would also reject that same view of the problem of Northern Ireland. The British, descendants of Scottish settlers and English landlords, have been in this part of Ireland for as long as white colonists have been in America. They have never been part of a Catholic Irish state and more than 50 years ago fought for their right to be independent of the newly formed Irish Republic. They cannot ''go home,'' for Northern Ireland is their home. Just as North America is the home for ''Americans.''
Do they too, the people of Northern Ireland, not have a right to self-determination? Is it right for Americans to supply the IRA with guns and missiles to force them into an Ireland they reject? For it is not just the army or the security forces in the North that the IRA seeks to drive out; it is the Protestant majority in the local population. And the British know very well that if the army did leave a civil terror-war would immediately break out, the consequences of which cannot possibly be foreseen.
The wide gulf between these two extreme views of the problems that separate the British and American administrations needs to be clearly understood and if possible bridged as a matter of urgency.
There are thunderheads building up in the distance over other perhaps even more important issues - American cruise missiles in Britain, nuclear disarmament , the future of NATO, protectionism in trade, and relations with the USSR.
Yet the British-American alliance should be the cornerstone of world peace. And, I would say, world prosperity.