If the Carter administration has not magically endowed Western Europe with a return to the 25 years of postwar properity, few Europeans would argue that Washington has placed obstacles in the paths of the tepid recoveries that are under way almost everywhere.

Carter and company have so far resisted the steep slide behind protective trade barriers that many in Europe feared would be erected. The U.S. is learning to live with large deficits in its trading balances that the Germans and Japanese are refusing to share. This, in turn, has meant that Washington has not interfered with the upswing in output that every nation in Europe wants every other nation to generate.

To be sure, the Europeans, as always, have their grievances with Carters's international economic policies. The French are perennially unhappy with the un-Cartesian uncertainties of floating exchange rates and blame Washington's slackness for perpetuating what Paris thinks is a non-system.

The Germans gripe over what they regard as demands on them to support a falling dollar. Chancellor Helmut Schmidt complained last week that the Common Market "is financing the United States." He does not see that what Bonn is really doing is holding down the mark to promote its own sales abroad, a form of exporting German unemployment to other nations.

The British, who benefited from the dying Ford administration's help to win an unnecessary loan from the International Monetary Fund, make the fewest complaints. More than others, London senses that its prosperity depends more on actions at home than moves by Washington.

In sum, the Europeans give the new administration a grudging C - plus for avoiding catastrophe. Only the most unsophisticated now use the phrase "monetary crisis" when exchange rates fluctuate.

The widespread sense of uneasiness in Western Europe is based on the evident fact that the world no longer has the tidy appearance it did when the dollar was an unquestioned reserve asset; exchange rates were more or less fixed (except when they were sharply and abruptly changed); output and real incomes grow almost every year; price increases were nominal and employment was nearly full.

The oil price increases imposed by the twin cartels of producer nations and their seven great corporate customers unleashed a tide four years ago that has not yet been subdued. It produced distorted international financial arrangements that are still making waves.

At home, economists, like those in the United States, are struggling with a dilemma that Keynes could ignore in the deeply depressed 1930s: How to reconcile the Keynesian techniques of tax cuts and spending increases to create jobs with the pricing power of large corporations and large unions. European central bankers, like their counterparts at the Federal Reserve, are enchanted with the discipline of curbing the money supply. But Western European governments, like Carter's, are unwilling to let jobless rolls climb to the point where price increases will be checked through under-used resources.

So at the periodic summit meetings of heads of states, leaders compare their alternative technique - incomes policies, national bargains, social contracts, guidelines and the rest. But these are answers that each a nation must work out for itself against its own cultural and historical background. Nobody expects Carter to come up with a universal answer and all would be pleased if he could find one for the U.S.

The most obvious consequence of the oil price increases is the huge and unbalancing surpluses piled up in the producer states. Some of these surpluses flow back to the West through enormous purchases of arms and outsized prestige projects; most of the rest buys U.S. Treasury instruments, a kind of forced lending.

But this means that some nations must bear the trade deficits that are the mathematical counterpart of the Arab-Iranian trade surplused. For a few years, the world's poorest nations performed this role, financed by the banks of New York and London. But now the banks are getting skittish, so the United States is doing the job almost alone. Everybody wants to do very much about it.

The Japanese and Germans could pick up some of the load. But their postwar prosperity, they firmly believed, is linked to exports. Bearing the load would mean accepting imports from others, letting the mark and yen rise, or lowering import barriers. But Bonn and Tokyo won't play this way. It is more convenient for the Germans to point a finger at Washington and say, "get your own house in order."

The United States, of course, could "get its house in order" by rigorously suppressing oil imports, by sternly slowing down its output and expanding its jobless rolls rapidly.

Apart from the fact that this would be unacceptable at home, it would also countermand Europe's other injunction to the United States: "Spur your economy because you are the engine of Western prosperity." In other words, where would the German and Japanese exports go if the United States really deflated?

So the Germans in their own way interfere with floating exchange rates as much as the Japanese. Nobody yet has figured out how to square the circle, how to enjoy simultaneously and indefinitely a big export surplus and a competitively undervalued currency.

The Europeans - especially the British, French and Germans - are apprehensive over the Carter plan to curb their steel imports with a "reference price." But all the industrial nations are moving toward a French dream, the cartelization or "organization" of job-sensitive markets. Schemes to carve up export shares in textiles, electronics and steel are now commonplace. There is no longer vigorous German or American opposition to these notions as a matter of free trade principle.

Nevertheless, this has been a creeping protection rather than a full scale retreat to the barriers that helpled worsen the Great Depression of the 1930s. At the same time, the United States and the European Common Market are laboring slowly in Geneva to bring some trade barriers down, an unthinkable exercise in past times of unemployment and stress. It is even possible that a deal will be struck next year. It may contain more symbolism than substance, but it will mark a resistance or sorts to the go-it-alone and beggar-my-neighbor of 40 years ago.

One source of strain, particularly between the U.S. and Germany, has now been diminished. When it first came in, the Carter crowd took the Ford line that Germany's anti-inflation fears were hampering German and world growth. With British support, Washington urged Bonn and Tokyo to relax, to stimulate, to expand. Many in Europe still believe the Germans and Japanese are doing less than their share to enlarge world markets. But nobody says very much about this anymore because the words did so little good.

In at least one area, Carter's economics have been an agreeable surprise. From the speeches of the President and some of his advisers, the Germans and British feared Washington would throw its weight behind global commodity deals to push up prices for the Third World. Since the Europeans import raw materials and get rich by processing them, they worried that an inflationary ramp was to be built for political reasons.

But when it came down to cases, in the recently suspended Geneva bargaining, the United States was found to be as tough as anybody in Bonn or London. The French, of course, hold themselves out as the Third World's special friend and claim to be horrified at the Washington-London-Bonn (and Tokyo) axis.But if Washington ever does give way, most Europeans expect that the French too, with much the same economic interest, will do their best to guard against perpetual commodity price increases.

In sum, Europeans can always be expected to grumble about aspects of Washington policy - and vice versa. But on balance, the Carter administration is credited with avoiding disaster even if it has won no kudos for epochal breakthroughs in policy.