In spite of the seductive pictures in the travel folders, do not take a foreign trip if you seek tranquillity of self-esteem. You will find that America is now viewed from Europe and the Middle East -- where I have just been -- as a bewildered elephant that has lost its way and is stepping on the vegetables. Because our friends and critics are deeply worried, they do not, as in the past, derive malicious pleasure from our discomfiture; their comments are no longer bitter, just plaintive.

The Carter administration is by no means solely to blame for the present disarray. It inherited an over-advertised "structure of peace" built of papier-mache and deceptively lighted. No wonder the plaster is all over the floor.

Yet the president has contributed to the current mess by insensitivity to the interest of others -- by, all too often, acting precipitately and consulting as an afterthought. He responded to the capture of our embassy personnel by embargoing exports to Iran, taking for granted that other nations would automatically follow suit; then, just as abruptly, he put that effort on the shelf. He reacted to the Soviet Afghanistan adventure by abruptly firing off all his non-military weapons -- embargoing wheat and high-technology equipment, proclaiming an American boycott of the Olympic Games, stopping cultural exchanges and announcing the Carter Doctrine -- all unilateral American actions. Why, then, was anyone surprised when our major European allies seemed reluctant to click their heels and say, "Me, too"? Instead, France and Germany announced their own common position.

These incidents have only reinforced Europe's grave suspicion that the Carter White House shapes its policy in the context of a pre-Copernican cosmology, as though the earth revolved around Washington. Even in that context, it appears to behave with little consistency, backing and filling in a jerky style. Meanwhile, no one can be sure just what line of policy it will follow next, or who is enunciating it.

"A two-headed foreign policy," an experienced European friend recently told me, "is as novel and useless as a two-headed dog. How can you expect anything but confusion when Mr. Brzezinski, the national security adviser, expounds and interprets American foreign policy more frequently and more noisly than the secretary of state?" It is not that the American "trumpet gives an uncertain sound" -- though it does -- but that a kazoo and a flute blowing simultaneously in different keys set European teeth on edge.

Complaints of the administration insensitivity are not limited merely to diplomatic style; they relate also to substance. What reaction could one expect from Europeans living next door to Moscow's military might when the president announced that he had suddenly changed his mind about the Soviet Union and now questions its good faith? How can they follow a leader with no consistent comprehension of the Kremlin's habits and intentions, who overnight swings from a preoccupation with SALT and human rights to what they regard as an over-reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan?

Even more disturbing to our friends is our behavior toward the Arab-Israeli struggle. Because, unlike America, most European countries are almost totally dependent on oil imports from the Middle East, they feel it a life-or-death imperative to maintain congential relations with the Arab oil-producing states. What, then, should they do when America routinely denounces Israel's land grab in the West Bank, yet continues to subsidize its expansionism? No wonder France and Austria have moved toward de facto recognition of the PLO and that even the Netherlands, whose support of Israel singled it out for special hardship during the 1973 Arab embargo, should now announce a harder position against the Begin government. Yet those defections from the America policy line are only the beginning of a process; unless America moves frontally to halt Israel's settlements policy and stops fainting like an 18th-century heroine at any sign of Israel's displeasure, we shall find ourselves alone with Israel against the rest of the world, while our allies negotiate separate arrangements that destroy any hope of a common Middle East policy.

That is only part of the pervasive disenchantment with America today. If we seem unable to handle our foreign relations with the wisdom expected of a leader, we seem equally inept with our domestic affairs that affect the prosperity of other nations. The dollar has fallen disastrously, inflation is vaulting, we continue to waste several times as much energy as other industrialized nations, and there is a dismal feeling that we have lost control of our economic future.

All that might be bearable where relief in sight, but our foreign friends see no hope from the November elections. Though the prospect of four more years of Carter depresses Europeans -- and particularly the thought that the Polish anti-Russian Brzezinski might replace the moderate Vance as secretary of state -- the thought of Reagan as president terrifies them. "How can it happen," a thoughtful French friend asked, "that out of a nation of 220 million of the world's ablest, best educated and often brilliant people, your leader must be chosen between Carter and Reagan? Your electoral system must be badly out of alignment!" I could not answer him; yet I had a sickening feeling that, in Evelyn Waugh's famous words, he was "bang right."