America's alliance with Western Europe is suffering a strain in many ways unlike any it has experienced in the past. One is tempted to call it a crisis -- a crisis of confidence. But crisis is an overworked word. It portrays the situation in too dramatic a light.
The potential for crisis is certainly there. But erosion, or drift, might be better words to describe this apparent deterioration in relations between the United States and Western Europe.
Like all potential crises, this one offers opportunities as well as dangers. It could result in a healthier, rather than weaker, alliance. But it might be a mistake to start by assuming that this is simply a bad moment which will pass.
The current strain involves a wider range of disagreements between America and its West European allies than any of the crises of the past. The hostage-taking in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan have brought to the surface seemingly fundamental differences between the US and Western Europe over how to deal with the Soviet Union and with the Arab-Israeli conflict.
When it comes to the Carter administration, European diplomats point to what they describe as a lack of consistency and clear leadership. American diplomats say that the Europeans sometimes use the leadership issue as an excuse for avoid ing responsibilities -- or failing to accommodate American desires.
Whatever the truth of that American allegation may be, the "Carter factor," as some Europeans call it, falls far shorts of fully explaining the current strain in US-Europe relations. It is clearly a factor that exacerbates the situation. But European respect for the United States and confidence in its leadership were in decline some years before President Carter took office. Social turmoil, Vietnam, and Watergate all took their toll.
Of more basic importance, perhaps, than President Carter's leadership, is the failure of a succession of American presidents to get their way on many issues with the US Congress. This has baffled some Europeans and added to the impression that the United States is unpredictable. Overwhelming votes earlier this month in the US senate and House of Representatives against President Carter's oil import fee are seen as examples of how Americans tend to place political expediency ahead of their own long-term interests.
Western Europe, in the meantime, has grown stronger both economically and politically. It has become more of a competitor with the United States it. no longer automatically accepts American proposals but vigorously scrutinizes and questions them.
all this has taken place against a background of fundamental shifts in the balance of power. The Soviet Union has caught up with the United States in the development of nuclear weapons, and it now can project its conventional military power, in ways that only the United States once could, around the world.
Further uncertainty has been generated in Western Europe by an economic recession, a fear that Western oil supplies might be reduced or cut off, and a conviction that the United States does not have the force in place, at this point at least, to back up President Carter's decision to draw a defense line against the Soviets in and around the Persian Gulf.
Elections in three of the key allied nations -- in West Germany and the US late this year and in France in mid-1981 -- pose a short-term danger for the alliance. The public posturing of candidates could create new tensions on both sides of the Atlantic.
Many West Europeans suspect that President Carter toughened his public stance toward the Soviet Union as much because of domestic political reasons and a need to counter an image of "weakness," as he did because of the realities surrounding the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Europeans question whether the Americans can keep their eye on long-term interests in the midst of an election campaign.
In France, an occasional show of independence vis-a-vis the Americans may make good election politics. But it can easily be misunderstood in the United States.
The major irritant in US-European relations at the moment is the West European decision to go ahead, despite US opposition, with a diplomatic initiative on the Middle East that would support Palestinian "self-determination."
Even more significant over the long run, however, are three dangers for the United States that may at the moment seem remote but that could emerge should present trends continue:
* One danger -- and a few observers see this as an opportunity, or a potential source of strength for the alliance rather than a danger -- would be that West Europe moves increasingly toward independent decision-making not just on political and economic policy but also on matters of defense. That may seem unrealistic, or farfetched, at the moment, but some experts who are paid to take the long view, such as Prof. Simon Serfaty of the Johns Hopkins University, warn that it should not be ruled out.
* Another danger might be created by a further decline in European respect for America's leadership combined with a growing respect for Soviet military strength. That combination could produce a gradual movement by at least some West European countries toward across-the-board accommodation with the Soviet Union.
* On the American side of the Atlantic, some think there is a danger, over the long run, or a revival of the attitude that accompanied then Sen. Mike Mansfield's amendment of a decade ago. It called for reducing US troop strength in Europe. Gregory F. Treverton, assistant director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, warned in a recent paper that "Mansfield Amendment-type pressure" might arise from a combination of deep recession in the US and a turn toward trade wars across the Atlantic.
To keep all this in perspective, US State Department analysts like to recall that much past pessimism about the 31- year-old alliance has proven to be wrong. The whole history of the alliance can be told in terms of disagreements, the analysts say. But the fundamentals of the alliance -- and most important the common security interest of the Amercans and Europeans -- have endured.
One longtime observer, Christopher J. Makins of Science Applications Inc., argues that the healing powers of time often come to the rescue of the allies.
"Alliance problems often don't have solutions," he said. "The problems tend to fade, and tempers tend to cool."
He and other scholars point out that on the military front at least, the allies have been able to agree in recent months on several difficult matters of considerable importance: a 3 percent real increase in defense spending by the key NATO countries; a decision to deploy in Western Europe new American ground-based nuclear weapons that can strike into the Soviet Union; a recognition of the strategic importance of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; and, as a result of the invasion, an acceleration of a number of NATO's long-term defense programs.
If Europeans are to criticize President Carter for lacking leadership in a number of areas, they cannot then deny him credit for having shown leadership in matters related to NATO. The decision to deploy new nuclear weapons in Western Europe has been called the most important nuclear-weapons decision to be made by the NATO allies in more than a decade. Whatever one thinks of that decision, it is clear that it required strong and adroit leadership both from President Carter and from West Germany's Chancellor Helmut Schmidt.
As Kenneth L. Adelman points out in a new book on national security published by the Institute for Contemporary Studies, President Carter has done "more for the military bolstering of NATO than any president since Dwight Eisenhower." It is in other areas that President Carter is most often faulted.
Polls conducted by the French Society for Research and Statistical Studies (Societe Francaise de Recherche et Etudes Statistiques), or SOFRES, show that President Carter's standing among the French has been in decline. On drop in French confidence in the President occurred after the abortive US rescue mission into Iran. But to keep this in perspective, it should be noted that a large majority of the French -- 69 percent, according to a recent SOFRES poll -- believe that should France be seriously threatened by a Soviet military attack on West Europe, the United States would come, as it did once before, to the assistance of France. Thus a loss of confidence in President Carter does not necessarily mean a loss of confidence in America's security guarantees.
Recent polls sponsored by the US International Communication Agency (ICA) show that in three key European countries -- France, Britain, and West Germany -- confidence in the willingness of the United States to defend West Europe has actually risen considerably over the past five years. A low point followed the US withdrawal from Vietnam in mid- 1975.
In some cases, it is American confidence in the West Europeans that has been shaken of late. One senior American diplomat angrily described West European reaction to Iran's holding of American hostages and to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as "a kind of neutralism." But another senior US diplomat thinks the West Europeans have gone quite far to accommodate the United States on these two issues.
Similarly, other diplomats as well as academic specialists interviewed recently in Brussels, Paris, London, and Washington disagreed on the seriousness of the disaccord within the alliance. But most of them did agree on a few basics:
First of all, while much American attention focuses on difficulties with the French, it is the West Germans who require the most understanding at the moment. West Germany is both strong and vulnerable. The West German reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan has shown what a large economic and humanitarian stake the West Germans have in detente with the Soviet Union. And charges from some Americans that the Germans, and other Europeans for that matter, are engaging in "appeasement" or "neutralism" toward the Soviet Union are not likely to improve US-European relations or understanding.
The USICA finds that many West Germans have come to the conclusion over the past year that the military balance between East and West has shifted in favor of the Soviets. Agency analysts suggest an "especially strong effort" would appear necessary to convince the German public that the US and its allies are able to maintain military strength equivalent to that of the Soviet Union and its allies. Confidence in the US defense commitment appears to be more limited in West Germany than it is in France or Great Britain.
Here are other suggestions from experts in both Europe and the United States as to how US-Europe relations can be improved:
* The US should not look to "quick-fix" solutions, or summitry, to restore mutual trust across the Atlantic. What the Europeans want is more steadiness from the Americans over the long haul, and an executive branch that does not give off mixed signals but pronounces with greater consistency on foreign affairs. Europeans sometimes get the impression that the US cannot keep its priorities straight.
* The US, some of the experts say, must even while building its defenses make every effort to obtain Senate ratification of the SALT treaty with the Soviet Union. SALT may not accomplish as much as is desired in the way of arms control , but it could restore an element of predictability to East-West relations -- and US-Europe relations. Polls show that in the major European countries, a majority of the population favors the treaty.
* "Consultation" is often the answer proposed for alliance disagreements. But many experts are doubtful that any new consulting mechanism can be found to coordinate allied reactions to events occurring in the developing world. The events themselves vary widely in nature, and sometimes American and European interests diverge. It might be healthy to recognize that there is sometimes strength in allied diversity.
Both the Americans and the Europeans seem to be accepting that there can be a "division of labor" among them in coping with third-world problems. But from the American point of view, the Europeans must be willing to take on more of the labor -- in keeping with their new economic and political strength. They must also break the cycle whereby they often criticize the US for being weak when it falters, but denounce it for bullying when it shows real leadership.
Reuter reports from Venice:m
European Community (EC) leaders meet here June 12-13 for talks expected to lead to a call for Palestinian representation in Middle East peace negotiations.
The nine heads of government, together for the first time since their foreign ministers settled a bitter dispute over Britain's EC budget payments last month, are due to issue a statement on the Middle East, putting forward a Western European position.
Another topic on the leaders' agenda, closely linked to the Middle East problem, is energy.
The summit is due to review development of new energy sources, but it will also almost certainly focus on Britain's North Sea oil and gas, EC sources said. West Germany has been pressing Britain, which sells its oil at market prices, to give its European partners preferential treatment.
The summit will try to establish a joint position on energy policy, especially in view of the decision by some Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries June 10 to raise prices to as much as $37 a barrel.
The community will then have a common line to present to the United States and Japan, which meet with it here June 22, officials said.
The nine European leaders are also scheduled to discuss a replacement for Britain's Roy Jenkins, current president of the EC Commission, its Brussels-based executive. his four-year term expires in January.