Within days of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher flew to Europe seeking allied support for sanctions against Moscow. Was the United States serious about an Olympic boycott as one of those sanctions, officials of West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's government asked him?
Christopher's answer was "no." A few days later, on Jan. 6, President Carter went on television and announced the boycott. Two hours earlier, the president had cabled a stunned Chancellor Schmidt telling him of the plan.
Christopher was not lying. U.S. policy had changed. But the episode provided further evidence for the European view that the Carter White House was unpredictable and insensitive to the needs of allies who live much closer to the Soviet superpower.
A month later, it was Washington that was stunned when France broke up a would-be five-nation foreign ministers' meeting by refusing to attend. The meeting had been hastily arranged and without direct Washington contact with Paris. The West Germans actually had done most of the arranging informally.
When word of the meeting leaked out, the French portrayed it as a high-handed U.S. effort to include them in an attempted show of allied support for anti-Soviet economic sanctions that France had already rejected.
Both episodes symbolize the strains on the Atlantic alliance that have grown out of the Soviet invasion, and, before that, the Iranian hostage crisis. They are strains that could divide the alliance to a degree greater than either Europe or America suspects.
This is so because the Carter administration, officials suggest, is digging in its heels for a new and tougher line with the allies precisely at a time that many European leaders seem more convinced than ever of White House imcompetence in handling foreign policy.
As the situation stands now, there are slight variations between the positions of individual countries.
All the allies have verbally condemned the Soviet takeover but have also refused to take any concrete actions that could damage their relations with the Kremlin in more tangible way.
Only the British government has offered strong public support for an Olympic boycott. Though it is likely that many other allies ultimately will stay away, the United States argues that statements are needed now to make it effective and influence scores of other nations which haven't made up their minds.
No one has been willing to restrict government credit guarantees to businessmen on trade with Moscow. The U.S. view is that this is no time to subsidize a business as usual attitude toward the Soviets with low-interest credits. The Europeans, however, do more than $8 billion a year in trade with the Soviets, two-and-a-half times the U.S. stake in such trade.
France, the most exasperating ally in Washington's view, has basically blocked any consensus on economic sanctions within the nine-nation European Economic Community. The view here, however, is that the rest of the Europeans also use this so-called need for a consensus as a "convenient dodge."
The West German government has been forthcoming on increased aid to Turkey and Pakistan more than other allies. But Bonn is known to feel that the United States acts too hastily, without any clear conception or appreciation of the consequences for countries that cannot afford to antagonize or "punish" a neighboring superpower except under extreme and clear-cut situations.
Increasingly, the leaders of France and West Germany, as well as some smaller countries, seem to be taking actions to protect themselves from what they see as unpredictable swings in Washington, while trying to maintain fundamental allied ties.
Senior U.S. officials accept the European point that recent consultations, especially on the Olympics, have not been good. They acknowledge that serious foul-ups in executing policy have occurred. Many agree privately with the European view that President Carter's description of the Soviet invasion as possible "the most serious threat to world peace since the Second World War" is excessive.
But, these aides maintain, the basic U.S. policy and instincts about broader strategic consequences of the Soviet invasion are right.
Failure of the allies to join in, they believe, will weaken Western solidarity, encourage Soviet adventurism by conveying a portrait of a passive Western Europe, and leave lasting scars both on the alliance and on American public opinion about Western Europe and Japan.
"The Europeans," says one high official, "simply cannot fail to react in Europe to dangerous Soviet moves . . . or even to events in Iran . . . simply because those moves happen to take place outside of Europe."
Questioned about allied actions at his Feb. 13 press conference, President Carter said: "In general, I have been well pleased. There's a remarkable degree of unanimity among our major allies about the seriousness of the Soviet threat in Afghanistan, and the actions that must be taken to counter that threat and prevent further aggression by the Soviet Union."
Today, senior aides believe President Carter would not repeat that. They say time and patience is running out here, and that the president, barring any change of allied attitudes, may now stop "protecting" the Europeans from U.S. public opinion or the Congress where feelings already run high.