IT SEEMS that the allies are taking the United States' latest request to apply diplomatic and economic sanctions against Iran not as an urgent priority but as a routine one that it is safe and proper to meet with the kind of half-measures characteristic of European diplomacy. Far from demonstrating that they understand and accept President Carter's turn to a tough policy and that they will do everything they can to support it, the Europeans, Japanese and the rest are explaining blandly that they have more at stake in normal diplomatic and economic ties than Washington does. Their more sinuous diplomacy, they say with a certain patronizing cough, can achieve results beyond those within the reach of the indelicate tactics chosen (perhaps partly for electoral considerations?) by an administration given anyway to sudden twitches. And so on.

All of this raises a question: Are the Europeans and Japanese aware of the extent to which both Washington opinion and American public opinion overall regard support on the hostages at the litmus test of alliance loyalty?Our impression is that they are not. The gathering evidence is that the allies are grossly misreading the depth of American feeling about the suffering of the hostages and about the country's frustration and humiliation in getting them back. As a direct result, a measure of palpable coldness, reserve and resentment is entering into the American attitude toward the allies -- something virtually bound to linger on and affect the American outlook on other matters that may be of much more interest to the allies than are the hostages. This goes well beyond the sort of normal, arguable and manageable differences they and the United States often have -- and have at the moment -- about particular issues, such as the Middle East or the dollar. It touches the essence, usually unremarked and taken for granted, of what makes one nation instinctively regard another as an "ally."

To be sure, Mr. Carter's past diplomacy has not been so smooth or constant or effective as to earn him the allies' automatic cooperation when he asks for it at a time of real trial. It is in the abiding self-interest of these very allies, however, to distinguish between situations in which a bookkeeper's tit-for-tat tallying of specific acts and obligations can be allowed to govern a response, and those rare situations in which conventional, transoceanic mincing and quibbling must yield.For the United States, the hostage crises is now in the latter category.

We can see why others, even friends, might not feel the same personal compassion and responsibility for the prisoners that their countrymen feel. But we cannot see why others would respond so equivocally as to force the telling question that is in fact being asked in this country, whether the allies realize it or not: In just what sense are they actually allies? Americans do not expect them to act as puppets. They do expect them to make it clear, as it is not clear now, that they understand this is important to the United States.