Has the Western alliance, facing an increasingly troubled world, dropped the carrot of conciliation and taken up the stick of retribution? Superficially, it would seem so. The meeting of the nine foreign ministers of the European Community (EC) in Luxembourg April 22 spelled out measures toward Iran that backed the American shift toward more punitive measures.
And observers expect a number of European nations, led by West Germany and finally suported by France, to join the boycott of the Moscow Olympics.
This is the new mood growing here as the community heads of state prepare for their quarterly meeting, also in Luxembourg, on April 27 and 28.
But diplomats caution against seeing the shift as one of stark polarities. In Europe, one American diplomat says, there is no great disposition to use punitive measures toward the Soviet Union over Afghanistan, or toward Iran over the hostages.
There is simply, he feels, "a greater feeling that things are getting out of hand" and that solidarity among the Western allies is the most intelligent response.
The Americans asked for tough action from Europe against Iran.EC foreign ministers, to America's satisfaction, responded by invoking immediate diplomatic sanctions and halting the sale of arms and defense-related goods.
They also threatened economic sanctions unless the Iranian government made what they called "decisive progress" toward releasing the hostages by May 17 the date of their next meeting.
A British diplomat present at the foreign ministers' meeting privately noted that there would have been very good reasons for not imposing such sanctions. Diplomacy depends on keeping channels of communication open -- rather then trimming embassy staff in Iran, as the British have already done, to skeletal numbers. And the history of economic sanctions suggests that they are generally unsuccessful -- and could, in this case, drive Iran toward a Russian embrace.
There is also the criticism that the US is hitting out a the wrong target; that Afghanistan, not Iran, should be the focus of American concern.
But these arguments, although aired, did not weigh against the higher claim of the need for unity.
"All of us were absolutely clear in our minds that Western Europe must stand shoulder to shoulder with the United States at this time," said the British diplomat.
For the British, the result of the foreign ministers' meeting is doubly pleasing. The resolution adopted was put forward by Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington -- and, as the British diplomat explained, "What came out was very close to what we put in."
Then, too, the meeting cleared the decks for what remains the overriding British problem: its disproportionate burden of funding the European Community.
Although Britain's faltering economy makes it the third poorest member of "the Nine," it is the largest contributor. since Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher came to office last May, that fact has threatened to burn holes in the fabric of European unity.
But the mood of solidarity, said one government official close to the Prime Minister, brightens the picture. The willingness to pull together toward a solution is stronger than it was at the European summit in Dublin last December -- when the Iranian crisis was still young, Afghanistan unheard of, and the world apparently less turbulent.
He also points to two other hopeful signs:
* The European Commission has formally quantified the size of the British problem: a net contribution of $:1.1 billion ($2.4 billion) this year.
* The means of solving it has been settled. a cut of some $:350 million ($ 770 million) in Britain's contributions is thought possible. Greater spending by the Community in Britain on transportation, urban renewal, Northern Ireland, and other areas will also reduce the net figure, perhaps by another $:300 million ($6.6 million).
But as Europe overcomes its fragmentation and grows tougher, the need for preserving links between the two superpowers looking over its shoulders still looms large. As one American official explains, the "shock tactics" against Iran and Afghanistan are shortterm measures, not inconsistent with the medium-term desire to preserve whatever is valuable in the SALT II negotiations.
"We don't want to sever that big hawser," he said, referring to American-Soviet relations, "because then we really are two big ships blowing around on a choppy sea."