Is the leadership of the Western alliance drifting eastward from the United States to Europe? Along with Europe's disenchantment over President Carter's leadership, diplomats here point to several changes that could herald such a drift:
* The nine-nation European Community (EC) surpassed the United States in gross domestic product for the first time in 1979. With a larger population than the US, the EC is also growing faster economically. "Europe is feeling its oats," says one diplomat.
* The United States has become more dependent on the rest of the world for oil and as a trading partner.
* The Soviets have achieved nuclear parity with the West. Europe's proximity to Russia, and America's distance from it, could become more significant.
But Britain's Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington, a key figure in shaping the policy of America's closest ally, and of Europe, has doubts about the drift in leadership.
"I don't think you'll get a European leadership," he said in an interview with the Monitor here just before leaving for the recent seven-nation economic summit in Venice. "I think it's got to come from the United States," he added, "very largely because of the military facts of life."
Lord Carrington, a sharp-witted aristocrat with a reputation for common sense and political acumen, emphasizes the variety of views within the EC. "In point of fact it's nine different countries, in different geographical places, with different economic interest, and different Community interests," he says. Observers agree that political cooperation within the Community is minimal.
For example, the major countries have different approaches to the Soviet Union. Germany's Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, fighting an election in a nation bordering East Germany, has won popular approval for continuing the ostpolitik line of detente with Russia. France's president, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, also with an election in view, walks a tightrope between Gaullists and Communists at home and asserts an independent French line. Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher -- with an outspoken dislike for the Soviets -- remains closer to America's frosty antirapproachment line.
So far, says Lord Carrington, Community foreign policy -- reflected in statements about Cambodia and the Middle East -- has arisen out of "consensus."
Explaining the Community statement on the Arab-Israeli conflict, Lord Carrington points to "an increasing unease about the polarization in the Middle East, which is nudging the moderate Arabs toward the Soviet Union."
Asked whether there has been a change in British Middle East policy since the June war in 1967, he replaces the word "change" with "evolution." He admits that British public opinion has shifted, but prefers to see it not as more pro-Arab but as "less pro-Israel."
"All of us are absolutely determined that Israel shant disappear," he says. "But that's not the same as saying they hang onto all the lands they've taken from the Palestinians and ignore the fact that the Palestinians have a right to live," he adds.
Europe, he feels, cannot do much in the Middle East in any case. But while he does not want the European initiative to "cut across" US negotiations, he worries that the United States is "in balk for the next six months" because of the presidential election.
Sitting informally in his spacious office, one leg over the arm of an easy chair and fingertips together below his chin, Lord Carrington talks also about Afghanistan.
Prior to the Soviet invasion, he notes, "The West and The old ex-colonial powers have always been in the dog-house in the United Nations and the third world." But, "for the very first time," he says in reference to the Islamic conference in Islamabad in May, "the third world has united almost unanimously against the Soviet Union." But the foreign secretary, who is seen as the author of the proposal calling for a "neutral and nonaligned" Afghanistan, confesses that he does not have all the answers. The Soviets, he feels, will not wish to leave Afghanistan "without having left a puppet." And he adds soberly, "I don't see my way through that."
Like his friend Henry Kissinger, Lord Carrington has earned great respect for his talents as a negotiator, especially for the results of the Rhodesia conference. But he is not eager, he says, "to go circling around the world trying to find bits of trouble in order to settle them." A committed European, he finds enough trouble washing up on his own doorstep. "I think the most important thing, really, is to keep Europe aright," he says. He speaks of "tremendous strains yet to come in Europe because of the common agricultural policy and the budgetary problems" and notes that they will be "quite difficult" to resolve.
Besides, he says, there is enough to do in pursuing the success of his government's economic policy at home. Has his party benefited by the disarray in the opposition Labour Party? "It helps a lot," he agrees, "and I think with any luck it will get" -- and he pauses, grinning infectiously -- "worse."