Jimmy Carter and Helmut Schmidt still miss each other by a mile, and both men regret it. "It's like Chinese water torture," said a close associate of President Carter. "Drip, drip, drip -- and finally it gets to you."
He was speaking of the string of irritants that has marred relations between these proud, powerful, and stubborn men since Mr. Carter moved into the White House 3 1/2 years ago.
West German officials tick off things that have bothered Mr. Schmidt, including the time "he risked his political career" to persuade West Germans to accept neutron weapons on their soil, only to have Mr. Carter pull the rug out from under him by suddenly postponing their development.
The latest flap was a White House suspicion that Mr. Schmidt would delay NATO's agreed-on deployment of medium-range nuclear missiles in West Germany if the Soviets would halt the continuing deployment of their SS-20s in Eastern Europe.
This prompted a letter from Mr. Carter to the chancellor that the West Germans describe a testy and that gave the two men some prickly moments in their bilateral talk at the Venice summit.
"Well," said Mr. Carter after that meeting, "it was sweeter and lighter at the end of the conversation than it was at the beginning.
"I do not agree," said the President, speaking of the broader issue, "with any freeze or any prohibition against American or European continuation of our uninterrupted plans" to deploy medium-range nuclear weapons.
"There never was any question of a freeze," said a senior West German official. "The NATO missiles will not be put in place until-1983. That is a fact."
Chancellor Schmidt, the official went on, was simply raising the possibility of missile deployment talks with the Soviets in the meantime, with no postponement of Western plans intended.
Aides to the two men have given up hoping that the personal chemistry between Messrs. Carter and Schmidt will greatly improve. "A secure phone line might help," said a top American official, reflecting on the situation. "Carter and Schmidt cannot talk to each other between Washington and bonn an be sure no one is listening." A West German official, while acknowledging that such a link would be useful, dismisses it as "mechanical." What is needed, he said, is "more consistent consultation."
Translated, this means that West Germans and other Europeans want to know where the United States finally is going to come down on an issue.
Part of the blame is laid at the door of Congress, which frequently refuses to ratify, or makes changes in agreements negotiated between the White House and other governments.During the Venice summit, for example, the West Germans taxed the Americans particularly on the issue of foreign aid. Other donor nations, the West Germans said, work out a multilateral aid package with US officials, only to find Congress changing the rules of the game.
"I remember," said one West German official, "a speech by [a US official] asking, 'Why can't Europeans speak with one voice?' Well," said the West German, " that's we want to know -- where is the one voice of the United States?"
None of this is new -- neither edginess between allied heads of government, nor European bafflement over the US system of division of powers.
Now transatlantic frustrations seem especially sharp, partly because Europeans believe that in at least two areas, their vital interests are largely in the hands of a US government in whose wisdom and consistency they lack confidence.
* On area is security, based on a continuation of detente between East and West. Europeans want to keep open all possible channels of communication with Moscow, as they tend to regard President Carter's post-Afghanistan policy as too rigid.
* The second area is oil. More than the United States, West European lands depend on a stable flow of Arab oil to keep their economies going. President Carter, in the European view, is unable or unwilling in an election year to put meaningful pressure on Israel to make concessions on Palestinian rights in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Without such concessions, many Europeans foresee moderate Arab regimes -- such as those in Saudi Arabia and Jordan -- being drawn away from support of the US and West.
This belief led to issurance of the so-called "European initiative" by the nine Common Market nations, calling for direct Palestinian representation in a broadened peacemaking process.
But President Carter says he will stick to the Camp David outline of Egyptian-Israeli talks for the time being.
Unable to bend President Carter's policy in these two areas, what can Europeans do in their own? "Very little," said a senior European official. "We dpend on the US for security against the Russians, and we have little leverage with Israel."
A senior US source put it another way. "The Europeans," he said, "have interests, but no power."