I have been trying to think of a time when the alliance was in array. Everyone knows it is in terrible disarray just now. It says so in the papers. Foreign-policy titans from other times and other administrations concur. But was it ever otherwise? Or was it -- on the contrary -- ever thus? I'm afraid the answer is thus.

My own modest researches show that we actually hold last rites for the alliance approximately every 16 months. The more prominent mourners change, but the Loved One remains the same. It is true that the alliance -- also loosely known as " the Europeans and the Japanese" -- has devoted much of its time to the pursuit of internal disarray, as in the ferocious Common Market competition and various bilateral disputes. But these have only compounded the transatlantic disarray when the quarreling parties eventually turned their frayed attention to us, or we turned ours to them.

Let's just pause for some of the highlights. There was the Nixon-Kissinger declaration of the "Year of Europe," an honor the proposed beneficiaries seemed to regard as a patronizing American putdown, more or less along the lines of a proclamation of National Office Furniture Week. This international year was celebrated by some of the most acrimonius examples of disarray we've had yet. Nineteen seventy-three and four generated the truly nasty disputes over whether the United States had insensitively failed to inform its allies that it was going on worldwide military alert at the end of the Yom Kippur war and whether some of them had not been craven and selfish in denying us overflight and refueling rights during that war. There were also terrible flaps over energy/oil policy and over the costs and quality of NATO defense.

Moving quickly backward, it is worth noting that the whole concept of a year of special concern about Europe was at least in part a reaction to European complaints that American preoccupation with Southeast Asia from the Johnson years on had been skewing transatlantic relationships and generating ever yet more disarray. Not that the alliance had enjoyed much respite from quarreling during or because of the Vietnam War: European, especially Gaullist, criticism of and distaste for the American engagement in the war, returned by American rage at its "faithless" friends, kept the relations in their usual sinking progression of "new lows."

The trade wars. The currency wars. The who-gets-to-share-the-nuclear secrets wars. Roughly, the conflicts divide into earlier post-World War II arguments about defense and later arguments about commmerce, money, resources and influence in Third World countries. John Kennedy's cancellation of the Sky-bolt missile -- penciled in by the British as a prospective defense mainstay -- created one of the more notable transoceanic uproars. So did some of his anti-colonial moves and so did what many Europeans regarded as a fixation with Cuba. Read Cuba for Iran. But the granddaddy, in every sense, of alliance disarray was surely Suez -- the ill-starred, secret British and French complicity with the Israelis in attacking the canal, which caused Ike to side against them at the U.N., partly out of rage at the furtiveness of the planning.

Back in January of 1963, one finds Henry Kissinger, in Foreign Affairs, decorously landing one on the Kennedy administration: "After nearly two years of intensive debate, our views with respect to strategy are treated with skepticism by many of our allies . . . Our policy in colonial areas . . . has disillusioned some staunch friends. . . . Of course, not every criticism need be taken at face value . . . but . . . many European leaders have refrained from expressing publicly the full extent of their uneasiness." Former undersecretary of state George Ball was high up in the administration Kissinger was criticizing. But Kissinger was to be the central figure in administrations George Ball would tax with roughly the same failures. And both, as now, would say the same, or worse, about another administration -- just as you can be sure that if either is back in office next year, he will be bombarded with similar charges.

Now, I am not suggesting that the complaints or general analysis are any the less true for their repetition and durability. On the contrary, I think the perennial quality of the complaint argues precisely for its fairness and authenticity, as distinct from any frivolity or falseness. But that seems to me the point: this is not a novel or distinctive condition or one that begins to be accurately described in the concept of "disarray." "Disarray" suggests an aberrant or ultimately fixable condition, whereas I think what we are dealing with here is the essential, natural and normal condition of the alliance.

What are the abiding complaints of which the disarray is composed? Super-grievance, of course (every new administration pledges to overcome it), is a failure of "consultation." Sometimes, perhaps because of its syllabic similarity to the word "hallelujah," I see the "consultation" chorus -- "con-sul-tay -shun!" -- as a kind of Handel oratorio with all the European cabinet ministers standing right up there in the front row singing. But everyone, at least since Suez, has been regularly chiding everyone else for this, and more interesting to me are the charges of substantive failures.

Read the complaints. The allies charge the U.S. government with being too hawkish and too dovish; they complain that our various presidents provide no leadership and are also too pushy, and that they ignore the allies and keep butting into their affairs unconscionably. The American counter-complaints are more consistent, but not always all that much reasonable. They are that the allies want something for nothing and also frequently refuse our kindly requests that they take the pipe.

But of course. We are, after all, a collection of countries trying to adjust and accommodate incompatible or competive political and economic interests in the service of a few overriding goals: the common defense, shared economic well-being, the upholding of at least minimal standards of decency. Where is it written that that could be smooth or easy or that it is even necessarily possible? There's no such thing as a disarray-free lunch.