It is not easy for America's friends in Europe these days. All too often they have to eat their own words, and the resulting bellyache gives them ample opportunity to ask themselves: Is it worth the trouble to defend an American foreign policy that is neither predictable nor convincing?

The last time confessing pro-Americans in Europe -- who still provide the majority by far but are frequently drowned by shriller voices -- could draw a deep breath was during President Reagan's European visit in June.

Here came the controversial man from Washington, and the former actor proved his talent to touch the hearts of people in an impressive way. He encouraged the British, he charmed the Italians and, better yet, he made the Germans smile.

After the new champion of Western solidarity, of peace and disarmament, left, America's friends here could tell West German critics to think twice, to look for other objects of their fear and contempt, that there are many better suited than Ronald Reagan to play the devil.

Wrong again. It took Reagan exactly seven days to correct his newly won image as a fair and understanding friend of the Europeans. He annonnced the tough embargo against the European-Soviet pipeline deal, and his critics had the upper hand again.

Ronald Reagan's embargo policy illustrates the difficulties affecting American-European relations in an examplary way. It reveals in a nutshell the problems of transatlantic comunication, the divergency of foreign policy perceptions, and the collision of interests.

First, how do deal with each other?

Consultation is the catchword for annoyed discussions in the Old World. It certainly is difficult and frustrating for Washington to deal with all those proud, wavering, selfish nations over there who rarely even reach unity among themselves. But if America wants to be their leader, it has to convince them, and should not try to intimidate or command them.

Ronald Reagan doubly disregarded this maxim when he announced his embargo on components for the gas-pipeline-deal.

He completely neglected the strong opposition of all Western European governments against an embargo, last made known during the Versailles summit in June (what do they talk about on these summits, anyway?). What is more, by telling European companies they couldn't use American licenses in carrying out the deal, he imposed American sovereignty on European nations.

This behavior raises serious questions about the attitude of the president and his foreign policy advisers toward America's allies. Do they consider them satellites that can be run from the White House, as Eastern Europe is run from the Kremlin? Do they confuse Western European nations with banana republics that can be brought to order by decree? Are they suffering from a superpower arrogance that does not acknowledge the legitimate rights of friends and foes alike?

This is not the first time Europeans have developed deep doubts about the fairness and wisdom of American foreign policy. (The traumatic experience with Jimmy Carter's trials in foreign policy are still not fully suppressed.) But never before in recent years have Europeans been treated as brutally and with such condescension as this time.

It may be premature to talk of "divorce," as the French foreign minister did, but what happens now in American-European relations is certainly more than a "family quarrel," as Ronald Reagan and Helmut Schmidt soothingly suggest.

The American attempt to ruin a $10 billion deal, which Europeans not only consider good business but a wise political endeavor as well, will leave the alliance with deep scars. It has reinforced European fears that Washington is finally losing the will and the ability to consult seriously with them.

Looking back, one wonders anyway how the alliance could survive the repeated dramatic changes of American foreign policy in recent times. Since Lyndon Johnson, each new president seems to have had a completely different view of the world -- and consequently to have used an entirely different approach to deal with it. Accompanied by many changes at the State Department (four different secretaries in little more than two years), this has led to frequent confusion among the allies.

To whom shall we talk in Washington? This often asked question of despairing Europeans is certainly understandable in the face of the fluctuation of policies and policymakers at the Potomac.

Perhaps the new secretary of state can help his inquiring partners from overseas. But there are already doubts in Europe. Will the experienced George Shultz be able to resist the pressures of the California crusaders who are on the march against the evils of communism and who apparently consider the allies as their auxiliary troops? The bets are on -- and there are not too many Europeans staking their money on the mounting of a moderate policy towards the East.

Yet only that -- an amalgam of American dynamics and European experience, of determination and far-sightedness -- could bridge the Atlantic gulf. The continuation of Washington's obstreperous solos, on the other hand, would be dangerously counterproductive: It would increase insecurity in Western Europe and strengthen the influence of Soviet propaganda there.

Second, how to deal with the Soviets?

Listening to many voices in Washington, you would think the answer were simple. Economic warfare and rearmament will do the job. They will push an impoverished, already tottering system over the brink.

If it were only that easy. If world affairs could be run like a Hollywood melodrama, as some people in the White House apparently believe, then we could indeed force the Kremlin to its knees. But relations with the Soviets are a bit more complicated, as Napoleon and the Germans (or the Poles or Czechs or Hungarians) could tell you.

They are a brave, tenacious, self-sacrifying and forebearing people, the Soviets. Their leaders undoubtedly will misuse all these virtues to overcome the effects of possible embargoes, and they will simultaneously, if necessary, participate fully in an arms race.

This does not mean, of course, that the West should grant the Soviets license to do as they wish. Rather, America and Europe should find a mutual method to challenge them. That is, of course, where the trouble starts. For there are not only differences in American and European intentions, but in their interests as well.

Naturally, America looks at the Soviet Union from a different (and more distant) angle. Many European understand the American anger about sharing the world with a totalitarian and backward system, about having to deal with another superpower that can't even feed itself.

Europeans don't admire the Soviet Union, either. They are, as a whole, neither sissies nor neutralists nor pacifists, as indignant Americans sometimes suggest. But unlike their fidgety friends in Washington, they know that they have to live with the Soviet Union as their next-door neighbor (and probably will for a long time). And they are sure that this means talking, dealing, and quarreling with the Soviets.

The German experience, for instance, illustrates the advantages of this attitude. There is, with the help of the allies, a secure status for the often troubled city of West Berlin. There are hundreds of thousands of West Germans visiting their relatives in East Germany each year. There are many who have been saved from East German dungeons.

If politics is the art of the possible, then it has been demonstrated by the shaping of East-West relations as the Europeans have tried it. To prefer dialog (as difficult as it may be) to confrontation is not appeasement but realpolitik.

Has not Poland changed all this? For Washington the suppression of the Polish liberalization movement certainly was the last nail in the coffin of detente. The Europeans were just as infuriated by the smashing of Solidarity and the installment of military rule. They only tried other ways to help the Polish people.

European governments used diplomatic and political channels to influence the Polish rulers. The European people sent packages to the starving Poles (the Germans alone sent more than four million during the first half year).

All this has not yet led to much relief for the Poles, but it certainly helped them more than a TV marathon with Frank Sinatra or the embargo on American corn that ruined the essential Polish poultry industry.

Ronald Reagan's veto against the gas deal does not promise much more success. It may annoy the Soviets a bit by delaying construction of the pipeline for a year or two. But it surely can't force the Soviets to turn the clock back to the time before the military takeover on Dec. 13, to grant the Poles the freedom they enjoyed then, as demanded.

For the Soviets to allow that, after all, could mean spreading unrest in the forecourt of Soviet power. It could mark the beginning of the end of the Soviet empire. Is it conceivable that the Kremlin would risk that in favor of a pipeline finished a little sooner? Certainly not. The effects of Reagan's embargo will be quite different: It will punishes the Polish rulers not at all, the Soviets a little, and the allies very much.

The West certainly has other means to influence the Soviet Union. They are unity, determination, military preparedness (contrary site to American fears, most European nations do their share), and the patience to move the insecure Soviets slowly toward the path of peace.

Third, how do deal with the economy?

The current Atlantic crisis would be less dangerous if it did not affect the West's economy so dramatically. With Europe in the worst recession since World War II and America not much better off, each wrong move could provoke an economic catastrophe. In European eyes the Reagan administration already has done its share to worsen the situation.

Why, ask European workers (of whom 10 million are out of jobs), does President Reagan try to torpedo the gas deal, which guarantees thousands of jobs, while he doesn't dare jeopardize the American farm industry by a grain embargo that would hurt the Soviets much more?

Why does Ronald Reagan want to prevent the Soviets from exploring their own energy resources? Has the CIA not predicted that the U.S.S.R. will run short of their developed oil supplies in a few years? Does he want the Soviets to satisfy their energy needs on the world market or, even worse, with less peaceful means?

Why is the president so afraid of European dependence on Soviet supplies? Will not West Germany, for instance, only import less than 6 percent of its basic energy needs through the troubled pipelines? And have not the Soviets always honored their trade contracts with the West -- in contrast to America under Jimmy Carter, who suddenly interrupted the contracted delivery of highly enriched uranium for European reactors?

Why, finally, does Ronald Reagan want to force the export-oriented European countries to break contracts? Does he want to endanger their reputation as dependable trading partners?

He aims at the Soviets and hits the Europeans. That is the overriding European opinion about Ronald Reagan's embargo. This certainly does not strengthen the trust in the president's foresight.

Washington's import levels on European steel, and especially the policy of high interest rates, further disturb Europe's economy.

For years European leaders, especially Helmut Schmidt, have urged the American government to cut inflation and stabilize the dollar. Now that this has happened, there are still reasons to complain. The Europeans, with all their scolding, did not ask Washington for a giant budget deficit that would push interest rates to unheard-of levels. High interest rates draw capital from Europe, funds that are as urgently needed there today for industrial investments and jobs as they are in the United States .

Does Darwin's law determine economic relations between the big United States and the smaller European countries? Will protectism become a new American trademark?

At the moment these suspicions are occasionally used by European leaders, who want to paper over the mistakes of their own economic policy . But if the fears should prove true, it would threaten not only the Western economy but the coherence of the alliance as well.

Because of Washington's obsession with rearmament and the embargo, because of high interest rates and import restrictions, America's image in Europe has been severely damaged. These days America oscillates between scapegoat and villain.

Even those Europeans who have for years known the United States as a compassionate and generous partner ask themselves if Lewis Mumford's dictum for America's beginning still is not valid today: that the settlement of the new world is the unsettlement of the old. They wonder why their great friend suddenly acts like a selfish and petty nation.

Despite all their current complaints, though, the Europeans have long accepted one fact of life: that they cannot survive without the help of the United States. Now they occasionally wonder if Americans are as sensible, if they are willing to agree that the United States without Western Europe would cease to be a superpower. For only if Washington's foreign policy is determined by this reality can a way be paved out of the crisis of the West.