A major reason for the current serious disagreements between the United States and some of its leading West European allies is that France and West Germany refuse to be drawn back into bloc politics.
Both Paris and Bonn are concerned that the US reaction to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan is propelling them toward a second cold war that they want no part of.
Until a few days ago these differences were largely concealed behind the facade of Western unity coming out of the Giscard-Schmidt joint communique of Feb. 5.
According to one high French official who is privy to the thinking of the top leadership in Paris and Bonn, and who participated in last week's Franco-German summit meeting, France and West Germany have serious misgivings over President Carter's confrontation policies toward the Soviet Union.
While France and West Germany strongly condemn Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and remain loyal to their Atlantic commitment, they believe the best way to persuade the Soviet Union to withdraw from Afghanistan lies not with ultimatums, but with imaginative diplomacy.
In their view, it is essential to leave the door open for the Soviets to move their pawn backward without losing face and to keep the dialogue with Moscow open.
Other high West European officials add that the lack of esteem felt in Western Europe for President Carter's leadership is not helping matters.
Europeans are concerned with what they call "chronic American excesses" vis-a-vis the Soviets. There is a feeling in West European capitals that Mr. Carter has whipped up the Afghan crisis partly for domestic reasons and partly because of the need to mobilize public opinion in support of increased military spending.
The French pointed out that the Giscard-Schmidt communique had been selectively reported by the US press, which quoted only the passages that condemned the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and not other passages that indicated a desire to cool the situation. The French official also alluded to "special European responsibilities," and to the need for not drawing the third world into any East-West clash.
Several reasons are given for French and German thinking (which, according to informed sources, is shared by the Italians and Japanese) being at variance with Mr. Carter's:
* The present situation, it is argued, results not from a change of Soviet policy, but from a lack of consistent and firm American foreign policy over the last few years. As a result of Vietnam and Watergate, the US failed to oppose Soviet moves into Angola, Ethiopia, and Afghanistan (when Muhammad Daoud was toppled by a communist coup in 1978). According to this well-placed official, the American response to Soviet penetration in Africa was so passive that France had to intervene two years ago to protect Zaire from an invasion.
* As seen from France, the shift in military balance that occurred between the US and the Soviet Union over the last 15 years comes not as a result of any negligence by France and West Germany, which pursued a steady course in their military programs, but from the US, which wasted billions of dollars in the Vietnamese war and later failed to adapt its military programs to similar Soviet efforts. Why should France and West Germany be called upon now to pay the price for erratic US behavior? the official asked.
* Those who insinuate that France and Germany want to "monopolize mediation" with the Soviet Union and profit from it forget that only recently Moscow and Washington were playing out their "love story" and that the US was talking to the USSR without inviting its European allies to the banquet, the official said.
The same is true, it is claimed, of former President Nixon's dramatic overture to China.Japan was never consulted. The French and the Germans are convinced that at some point in the not-too-distant future, the Americans and the Soviets will be thick friends again and that they themselves will be left standing at the door. "In the meantime, we want to attend to our own national interests," the official explained.
* France and Germany, the French official argued, remain faithful to the Atlantic alliance but this pact does not cover the Gulf region or, for that matter, Afghanistan.
Asked about the threat to the West's oil supply represented by the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, the official explained: "The major threat to the West as far as energy is concerned, comes from the fact that the Americans and Europeans are not willing to reduce gas consumption."
He also pointed out that the American government had reacted with much less vigor when Russian tanks entered Budapest in 1957 and Prague in 1968 than with the present Afghanistan walkover. Yet, the official explained, Western Europe felt much more of a threat from the Soviets arriving in Hungary and Czechoslovakia.
French and German authorities believe that at the heart of the present crisis lies a military imbalance: Right now the Soviet SS-20 missiles deployed against West Europe give Moscow an advantage. Three years from now, the Pershing II missile would give NATO the upper hand. A balance could be reestablished through negotiation.
The Italians -- but not the British -- reportedly share these views. But while French President Giscard d'Estaing feels politically secure and can take some flak from the US, Mr. Schmidt is more vulnerable to US pressure in the sense that "the Americans could play the [Franz Josef] Strauss card" against him at the coming elections.