In the face of a wide range of disagreements between the United States and its European allies, President Carter is pursuing a two-pronged approach these days.
The President is pressing the allies on one point of disagreement -- the Palestinian issue -- while easing American pressure on others.
The reasons for this appear to be at least partly a matter of domestic political priority in an election year. In listing for American audiences the achievements of his first four years in office, President Carter has been pointing, among other things, to the strengthening of the NATO alliance.
But administration officials also indicate that US criticism of the allies' reaction to the hostage-taking in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan may have gone too far to be diplomatically productive. With the exception of a public disagreement with the West Europeans over the Palestinian issue, US officials seem to be placing more stress, for the moment at least, on matters that unite the alliance rather than matters that divide.
On May 30, Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie engaged in a bit of fence-mending with French Foreign Minister Jean Francois-Poncet. Senior American officials went out of their way following that meeting to stress to reporters how close are the US and French perspectives on the strategic importance of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
But regardless of how much they agree on the importance of that invasion, it is clear that the US and its West European allies continue to disagree in many ways on how to deal with both the Soviet Union and the Middle East. Nothing could illustrate this better than three recent events:
* The US was busy last week concluding arrangements for the sale of "nonlethal" military equipment to the Soviet Union's archenemy, China.
* The West Germans were reaching a new economic cooperation agreement with the Soviets.
* The French were declaring that they and the other West European allies intend to go ahead, despite US opposition, with an initiative supporting Palestinian "self-determination."
It is this European initiative, and not Iran or Afghanistan, which has the potential for becoming the major irritant in US-European relations in the weeks ahead. While playing down disagreements with the Europeans over Iran and Afghanistan, administration officials have been outspoken in their opposition to any European initiative on the Arab-Israeli conflict that would divert attention from the US-supported negotiations between Egypt and Israel.
In an interview on the CBS television program "Face the Nation" on June 1, President Carter indicated that he would veto any resolution that the Europeans supported if it damaged UN Security Council Resolution 242. That 1967 resolution calls in effect for the withdrawal of the Israelis from occupied Arab territories in return for the right of Israel to live in peace within secure and recognized borders.
The Europeans want to combine guarantees of Israel's security with support for Palestinian "self-determination." This would go farther in the direction of the establishment of a Palestinian state on territory now occupied by Israel than the Israelis are willing to go.
The Europeans are convinced that given the influence of the American Jewish community, President Carter will be incapable in this election year of pursuing a policy that would adequately take into account the interests of the Palestinians. White House officials hint that despite what the Europeans say, the President is fully capable of undertaking before the November election a new , and even risky, US initiative -- if it stands a chance of success.
President Carter has apparently decided, meanwhile, that he cannot press the Europeans to go along with US policies on all fronts at once. He is concentrating his fire on any possible European move that might disrupt the US-sponsored Camp David peace process. But he is being exceedingly diplomatic when it comes to what he clearly considers to be inadequate support from some of the allies on the questions of Iran and Afghanistan.
The economic sanctions against Iran that the allies agreed to recently are largely symbolic in nature. The bulk of European economic and financial deals with Iran remain in place. The aftermath of Afghanistan, two key allies, France and West Germany, have failed to cut back on the trade credits and guarantees they provide to the Soviet Union.
But President Carter chose in his CBS interview to assert that economic sanctions against Iran, which were decided upon by the Europeans, are part of a new allied effort to secure the release of the American hostages. On Afghanistan, US officials now emphasize an identity of views on the importance of the Soviet invasion while minimizing the differences among the allies over how to deter the Soviets. It goes without saying that to over- emphasize disagreements within the alliance would not be good election year politics.