A French intellectual who likes America and is also a brilliant sociologist. This rare mix of qualities is found in the person of my friend Michel Crozier. So the book he has just published in Paris -- "The American Disease" -- cannot be put down to rancor or ignorance.

One the contrary, it presents a candid view of the recent decline in American power as seen through European eyes. It draws conclusions that show why recovery of rapport with the European allies is the most urgent -- if not the biggest -- foreign policy task before the incoming administration.

The well-known symptoms of this country's recent troubles all find a place in Crozier's book. He explores the mystery of why the United States wasted blood and treasure in the useless (and unnecessary) war in Vietnam. He describes the "sound and fury" of the 1960s and the revolt of blacks, women and young people. He notes the rise in crime and the decline in several basic industries and almost all services -- especially public services.

Leadership difficulties are a recurrent theme. The past five presidents -- a Catholic, two southerners and two conservative Republicans -- strike Crozier as "improbable" leaders for the United States. He says little about Ronald Reagan. But he notes how much "the sense of state" has been replaced in the selection of American presidents by "glamour," "style" and the "spectacular."

Rich, firsthand experience guides Crozier in examining two component elements of American decline. He knew the world of the labor unions and the world of the universities from the 1950s -- the time of the "happy, confident America" -- through the present.

The unions, just after World War II, were a foremost sign of an America out front and on the move. They played a part in making the economy dynamic, in electing a president and in fostering American foreign policy actions, especially the Marshall Plan, around the world. Now Crozier sees them occupying privileged positions in industries -- autos, steel, rubber, transportation -- that are breathing hard.

The universities emerged from the war as one of the great American resources -- a "reservoir of knowledge" in "pursuit of the truth." But overconfidence turned the pursuit of truth into a "cult of rationality." Then the revolt of the students combined with the end of the huge growth in the college-age cohort to bring hard times. "In a few years the happy intellectuals became the bitter intellectuals."

No master theses were advanced to explain the sudden rise and fall. "This book bears witness," Crozier writes. "The time for true synthesis has not yet come."

Still, he signals as clearly important a deeply embedded cultural trait -- innocence, the American belief in the innate goodness of individuals. That confidence works to perform wonders when there is space to be filled, when people are in short supply and natural resources abundant. But when conditions change, when there are more people than places and a limit on resources, then confidence turns sour and large parts of the population drop out. "The virtuous cycle is transformed into a vicious cycle."

Arguments can easily be advanced against Crozier's indictment. Errors of fact betray a lack of familiarity with the details of American politics. Like most foreigners, Crozier concentrates on the East Coast and California. He seems a stranger to the new springs of American dynamism -- the Sun Belt, the Rocky Mountain states and the Northwest, including Alaska.

But in one respect, Crozier's argument resists challenge. He asserts the European reaction to American decline in a way that cannot be gainsaid. Here, in snatches, is what Europeans are telling themselves:

"There is no more Big Brother. . . . America will never be what it was. . . . The U.S. must find anew among the Europeans the sense of state. . . . We have ceased to be provincials exercising only limited regional responsibility. . . . The bi-polar world of the two superpowers is drawing to a close. . . . We are entering a game of five in which China, Japan and Europe join the two giants -- or six with the Muslim world. . . ."

In other words, the Europeans are now moving inexorably to go into business for themselves -- especially with Moscow and with the oil-producing states of the Middle East. The critical need is to make of that certain happening a joint venture. For if the Europeans try to go it alone, if they work against the American grain, they will surely fail. And if they fail, we will be the lesser for it. g