Now take the Brits, who, having wrapped up Rhodesia in style, are eagerly measuring other towering peaks for British diplomacy to scale. To hear them tell it, the crisis in Afghanistan will shortly be eased, thanks to the British proposal for neutralization. Meanwhile, they are weaving a Palestinian initiative that should resolve the Middle East dispute forthwith.

We are fortunate to have allies who energetic, sage, accomplished, forward-looking, posessed of a new sense of purpose, devoted to the common weal -- the whole bit.Or rather, we would be fortunate to have such allies. For something is missing from the vision of craft and triumph -- and British centrality in the grand scheme of things -- that has been sloshing out of Margaret Thatcher's Foreign Office since Rhodesia: good sense.

The Afghanistan initiative offers an example. Neutralization is an idea with, to the British, many advantages. It shows that the Thatcher government is diplomatically inventive and is not tilting excessively toward Washington. It provides a platform on which many Europeans, at least, can take a common stand. But it is also, at this stage, silly, unless Foreign Secretary Carrington's purpose in offering it was simply to elicit the cold-eyed Soviet rejection that, in due course, followed. More likely, the purpose was -- or the effect will be -- to give Europeans an alibi to escape imposing the painful sanctions favored (off and on) by the United States. If neutralization is regarded as anything other than a euphemism for a continued Soviet hammerlock, the Kremlin will not accept it unless it is compelled to.

Can the British help there? Thatcher vigorously opposes participation in the Moscow Olympics. Yet when the British representatives of 15 sports voted this week, only the Field Hockey Federation supported her. One does not want to disparage Thatcher's evident success in rallying the field hockey power structure. But even as her government appealed to athletes over the heads of their recalcitrant federations, it (again) ruled out "oppressive measures" to keep athletes, spectators or television crews at home. A leadership whose writ does not appear to run much beyond the crab grass on a hockey field would not seem to be particularly well placed to pry Soviet troops out of Afghanistan.

Britain is aggravating importantly the European itch on the Palestinian question. Its initiative is going forward, moreover, to the sighs of a veritable orgy of self-congratulation. "The world was ready for Britain to pursue a more active role in foreign affairs than it had in recent years," one Foreign Officer minister confided to a reporter the other day. "The rest of the world recognizes that Britain still has diplomatic experience and skill."

It also has vanity and an imperial nostalgia. What "skilled" diplomat would offer something for nothing, the way the British are offering Palestinians an explicit recognized right of self-determination without asking them to accept a matching explicit recognized right of Israeli self-determination? Unless, of course, Britain's real intention is simply to dump the problem in American's lap, while pursuing its own interests in the Arab world. Dumping a problem, and making it harder for others to solve, is not what foreign offices usually laud as creative and constructive diplomacy.

Christopher Makins, himself British, suggests in a new Brookings study: "The Arab-Israeli dispute has been largely neutralized as a source of U.S.-European friction by the virtual abandonment by the Europeans of any pretensions to diplomatic influence in the dispute." But the British and, to be sure, the faithful French have not abandoned those pretensions. That they do not ave the influence or disinterest to be helpful ought to, but does not, inhibit their making mischief. Just a few weeks ago the British were squirming lest Americans undercut their conduct of the Rhodesian talks. The Americans, not altogether easily, played the good ally and stayed out of the way. Now we see how grateful and understanding the British can be when the tables are turned.

It is good of Thatcher and her diplomats, having tidied up one corner of the old British empire in Rhodesia, to volunteer to tidy up two other old corners, Afghanistan and Palestine. But if Britain really is in such a selfless mood, there is yet another old corner -- an urgent one far closer to home and one where the responsibility, British people never stop insisting is Britain's alone -- to which the Thatcher government might turn: Northern Ireland. Or is it easier to look for distraction and kudos at a far remove?