London — AN American in Britain is struck constantly by the degree to which the British seem to be more critical of the United States than they are of the Soviet Union on East-West issues. The impression is confirmed by a report issued at the end of October by what The Times (London) described as a ``leading independent institute,'' Social and Community Planning Research. According to the press account, the report finds a ``clear and continuous shift to the left since the last [British] election,'' and, further, concludes that ``most of the population (55 percent) believes that Russia and America are equally great threats to world peace.''
The explanation of this attitude, according to many in the United Kingdom with whom I have spoken, lies not in any particularly benign attitude toward the Soviet Union, but in doubt and concern about the politics and policies of the United States.
The British have no particular love for the Soviet system or Russia. While there are militant left elements in the trade unions, representatives of the militant left were recently expelled from the Labour Party. The communists in Britain have never been a force in elections.
Nevertheless, the Soviet Union is seen here in less ideological terms. Russian ambition and tactics tend to be viewed as extensions of historical Russian characteristics rather than as a communist phenomenon. Those concerned with the Soviet military threat see the Russians as ruthless but not mad.
Criticism of America seems stronger, in part, because Americans will listen to British complaints. Beyond that, the British feel that they are more likely to be affected by US actions and have less influence than they would like on US policies. As one Britisher said to me: ``You have to realize that, in a sense, Ronald Reagan is our president, too. We are at the mercy of what he does, yet we do not vote in US elections.''
Britain's concerns over its vulnerability to US actions did not start with the Reagan administration. Newspapers in London are, at the moment, noting the 30th anniversary of the Suez crisis of 1956 when the US blocked British, French, and Israeli actions against Egypt.
There is little doubt, however, that the Reagan administration's behavior has aggravated British feelings of concern.
British friends will cite, first of all, statements from Washington early in the administration that seemed to suggest the possibility of winning a nuclear war. The nuclear issue is a sensitive one in this tight island. Polls suggest strong support for a Labour Party position that would eliminate nuclear weapons in Britain.
Two more-recent events have caused a rise in concern over the unpredictability of US decisionmaking: the raid on Libya, and the Reykjavik meeting.
British from both conservative and liberal camps have told me that the US use of British airfields for the raid on Libya undoubtedly contributed to support for the Labour Party's antinuclear stand. However illogical this may seem to an American, it is explained thus: Britain still feels a sense of pride and a loss of power. For another nation to use British territory, apparently without genuine consultation and agreement, was deeply offensive.
Many British citizens applauded the attack on Libya and even expressed regret that British forces could not join in the action. But the real apprehension is that there might be an occasion when the US might use British airfields in a case that would be unpalatable to the British public and government.
The British public seems to feel that the use of the aircraft from Britain was unnecessary to achieve the American purpose and that the Americans thus created a risk for the British that was not justified.
Reykjavik raised concern because of a broad feeling that the US was not prepared for the negotiations that developed at that summit. Proposals involving missiles in Britain were placed on the table without adequate consideration or consultation. Offers to eliminate all nuclear weapons were put forward at a time when the British government, with US support, is seeking to preserve a nuclear deterrence for the United Kingdom.
Americans may at times be misled about the true degree of enthusiasm and support for US policies in the United Kingdom because British governments, until now, at least, have tended to endorse US actions. Margaret Thatcher, especially, has been supportive of President Reagan and obviously agrees with many of his approaches.
To get a true measure of the soundness of this support, however, it is important to look beyond the statements. Mrs. Thatcher supported the raid on Libya, despite strong domestic opposition, because she feels an obligation to the US administration for its support on the Falklands, because the question of the extradition of Irish terrorists was before the Congress, and because she did not wish to disrupt allied unity on terrorism.
Many British citizens - probably a majority - feel close to the US, but they also, in their proud way, want to be considered not just a landing strip, but an ally. The official statements of friendly governments on this side of the Atlantic should not blind US administrations to how fragile that support can be when US decisions create a feeling of unnecessary vulnerability in the United Kingdom.
David D. Newsom is spending a sabbatical leave from Georgetown University at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.