Among the big losers in the American elections you can count the European allies. For they no longer have Jimmy Carter to kick around.
Without Carter as an excuse, the Europeans have either to acknowledge differences with the United States on fundamentals or to modify some of their independent positions. The test of which way Europe goes begins with the visit of Chancellor Helmut Schmidt to Washington this week.
The West German leader is, for many reasons, the key figure in Atlantic relations. He has just won a new electoral mandate to run the Federal Republic and its potent economy. As the foremost socialist on the continent, he has political lines into all the other West European countries. His own country abuts Soviet power. So without West German support, no European nation -- not even France -- can long stand at odds with American policy.
As befits his central role, the chancellor has played a lead part in the allied assault on President Carter. In a wide range of different forums, the chancellor has made plain the feeling that no European leaders could entrust the fate of their governments to Carter. He has intimated -- more in sorrow than in anger, of course -- that, because of Carter, Europeans have had to strike out on their own in dealings with Russia and the Mideast.
If those complaints had been solid, if Carter had indeed been the only fly in the ointment of allied harmony, then his defeat in the election would have produced a turnabout in Europe, and particularly West Germany. In fact, however, Bonn has not reversed gears and headed toward rapprochement with Washington. On the contrary, Schmidt has already found a couple of new occasions to reassert independence.
On Nov. 7, in his first press conference since the German elections of Oct. 5, Schmidt made it plain that West Germany would not meet the NATO target of 3 percent annual increases in defense expenditures sponsored by the United States. He said that commitment had "to be looked at again" by all the allies. To preempt American criticism, Schmidt took the United States to task for failure to enact military conscription. "The Freedom of the West," he said in his best lecturing style, "is not defended by paper money, but by people."
On Nov. 10, Schmidt met in Paris with French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing. Both men expressed interest in what Schmidt called "a strong American administration and a strong America."
But as usual, Schmidt stepped aside to give France the lead role. As usual, Giscard asserted the Gaullist view of a Europe independent of American leadership. With Schmidt at his side, the French president said that the strengthening of American leadership "made it all the more necessary . . . to end the effacement of Europe from world affairs." What that means in English is that the French and Germans intend to continue their efforts to work out a Mideast settlement outside the Camp David process, and an understanding with Moscow outside the Big Two framework.
Americans, in these conditions, owe the chancellor some plain talk. He needs to understand that the NATO defense commitment goes beyond mere electioneering by Carter. He needs to realize that the American wariness of Russia derives not from Carter's overreaction to Afghanistan but from a reading of likely developments in the Persian Gulf and Europe, especially Poland. He needs to understand that this country backs the Camp David process not because of Carter's deference to the Jewish lobby, but because peace between Egypt and Israel offers the best starting point for eventual settlement in the Mideast.
Sober, even melancholy tones ought to attend the delivery of that message. It may be that the Germans and French have already decided to go into business for themselves in dealing with Russia and the oil states of the Mideast. Such a choice, at least judging by the results of the most recent European initiatives, promises disaster. Still, if Paris and Bonn are determined, Washington cannot force them back into line. What America can do is make sure the allies know that a loosening of bonds is the last thing this country wants. If the alliance continues to fall apart, the crumbling is on their motion, not on ours.