Do Americans and West Europeans understand each other as well as they should? No. They need to do better, says British nobleman and diplomat Lord Carrington, former foreign secretary and soon-to-be secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
In a brisk, cheerful interview, he talked in part about ''misconceptions'' that the peoples of the NATO alliance hold about one another. He said he will actively try to clear some of them away when he takes up his new office in July.
The issue is an important one, he believes, since a cardinal element of Soviet foreign policy for decades has been to divide the United States and its NATO allies in every way the Kremlin can devise.
Americans, he thinks, tend to see Europe as one entity that doesn't do enough to defend itself; it relies on the US on the one hand and criticizes it on the other. In reality, he says, Europe is many diverse countries (Turkey and Denmark , for instance) with differing geography, political systems, traditions, and strengths.
For their part, Europeans tend to see the US as a country ''just like their own.'' Yet America is enormous, stretching across an entire continent, with a federal system that ''leads to some of the policies Europeans don't understand.''
Lord Carrington has also said that Americans feel that many Europeans are more interested in material prosperity than in their own defense. Europeans worry about the erosion of the material gains they have made since World War II, but they are also worried about the possibility of a nuclear war on their own soil.
In addition, a new generation of Europeans ''looks more closely'' at the US and wants to make up its own mind. It knows little of US aid in World War II or the Marshall Plan.
What is to be done?
Lord Carrington made it clear he intends to tackle misconceptions - and even perhaps policy issues such as the deadlock over Cyprus between NATO members Greece and Turkey.
''The job of the secretary-general is to make sure that the alliance prospers and holds together,'' he said. ''If there is a quarrel or a difference of opinion or misunderstanding between European countries and North America - let's not forget Canada - then it's obviously the job of the secretary-general to see what he can do to resolve the problem. . . .''
Hopes should not be set too high. ''I don't believe you are going to see all differences of opinion removed.''
At the same time he was encouraged to see that when a crisis appeared, NATO members pulled together, and ''rather minor'' differences faded as they did so.
During the Polish crisis of two years ago, NATO foreign ministers raced through a meeting in one hour to avoid the appearance of disagreement over the communique. In more normal times, the meeting would have lasted eight hours.
''Things that appear to be very serious in retrospect disappear quite quickly ,'' he said. ''What about the (trans-Siberian natural gas) pipeline? The ill-feeling (as President Reagan tried to block European help for its construction) has to a very large extent disappeared. . . . People are working together again. . . .''
A final Carringtonian word of advice for the US: ''When we ran the world, everybody was always criticizing us. If you are looking after people as in a sense the US is looking after Western Europe, it's a mistake to suppose that you are going to get much thanks for it. It's very difficult to be beholden to someone. . . .
''The Americans mustn't mind too much, if they believe the policy they are pursuing is the right one.''
On other matters American, Lord Carrington praised President Reagan's milder tone toward the Kremlin in his State of the Union address and in a speech earlier this month.
He also predicted that the Soviets would return to talks aimed at limiting strategic and medium-range missiles, ''but I don't know when.'' It was far too soon to talk of a superpower thaw, he said, but on arms talks, ''things are moving in the right direction.'' The Soviets already have agreed to return to Vienna negotiations on conventional troops.