If "Atlantic Partnership" were the code words in 1962, the metaphor for 1977 may turn out to be "ships passing in the dark." This state of affairs could come about because two egocentric societies, American and European, overlook the essence of successful diplomacy: to try to understand the situation and the point of view of the other side.

The first component in the simmering Atlantic brew is an eager, activist, self-confident Carter administration, in movement on all front at once, domestic and foreign.

The second element is Western Europe today. On returning to Europe after only several months away, one gets the impression of new problems added to old; nothing seems to get solved. There is still that surface sheen of a working in industrial society, certainly of conspicuous consumption. It is hard to believe that this slick veneer merely masks acute economic and political instability.

The Andreotti government soldiers on in Italy, tenaciously holding the economic line, but in so doing increases political tensions to the breaking point. France, too, makes some economic progress but unemployment grows and the left coalition in the municipal elections overwhelms a government bent on fraticide. France enters a year of intensifying political maneuver leading up to the crucial parliamentary elections of March 1978. The Callaghan government struggles to stabilize the British economy and is forced to fight both its militant Labor left and the Tories. A mismanaged Scottish devolution bill makes an election possible in the fall and a period of hard political in-fighting inevitable. Thus, three of the four major European governments struggle desperately merely to survive.

Americans, insofar as anyone ia paying any attention to Europe, not unreasonably assume that Germany is the one sturdy, well-captioned ship riding out this continental storm. Yes and no. The Federal Republic is in far better economic and political health than any of its European neighbors. But this is a mixed blessing. Schmidt's coalition is far from secure. Germany's relative strength elicits demands for quicker economic expansion from both Europe and the United States beyond what Bonn finds politically possible. Furthermore, wealth in the midst of poverty has never bred community harmony. Demands that Germany carry a larger share of the European burden are allied with envy and bitterness. Out of this interplay of European forces come resentment from the needy countries and their fear of German domination. The Germans respond with irritation, economic lectures from Bonn, and self-pity.

An almost certain chemical reaction develops from this Atlantic mixture. Under any circumstances. Europeans are best superficial students of the American political scene and, consequently, almost always in favor of the last administration, the one they had finally gotten to know. It is hard to imagine an American government more alien to Europeans than that in Washington today. Not only is the shift in style and pace breathtaking, but they have first baffled and then privately irritated by the flood of Washington initiatives. They have slight quarrel with any of the broad goals that Carter has outlined. But the broad strategy escapes them; they do not comprehend the tactics. And for Europeans in a state of economic and political shock the new administration's high mindedness comes cross in Europe as another example of American arrogance. All the pent-up European frustrations are relieved in a reaction to what is seen as American presumption in assuming the role of moral spokesman on the great issues of the day.

The Carter administration feels it is following an entirely proper, predictable and open pursuit of objectives announced during the campaign, such as its determination to bring about changes in the German Brazialian nuclear contract. As Germany misunderstands the reasons for America's impatient pressure, German opposition can easily be misconducted in Washington. The human rights issue has the potential of breeding further cross-purpose. Europeans have reservations about the administration's approach to the problem, to say nothing of the limitations imposed on them by their delicately balanced internal political situations. But the new administration is all too likely to put European resistance and confusion down to indifference to the moral issues at stake and to see this as further evidence of paralytic, divided and decendent continent.

There is disheartening irony in this situation. Unless Washington makes a special effort to appreciate the difficulties and utter complexity of the European scene, just as European must analyze the American scene as it pursues its domestic policies, Carter can end up with a Europe as irritable and irritating in 1977 as it was in 1973 witht he ill-conceived "Year of Europe."

As with sick and slowly convalescing patients, too much exercise, too rich a diet or too severe a mental challenge can kill. The long and creditable agenda Carter has sketched out will never be attained without European cooperation. Whatever the chances of obtaining this cooperation, they will certainly disappear if priorities are not established, in consultation with the Europeans, and problems are then attacked at pace that takes into account the preoccupying internal problems of our European allies.