An earful of the European complaints against the Reagan administration came this way last week during a trip to Paris and Berlin. But the transatlantic rumbles, when taken point by point and subjected to analysis, seem more full of sound than substance. With a modicum of skil, the administration can disarm its European critics -- especially if the president moves with dispatch to formulate an agreed position of dealing with Russia.
Economic policy represents the most serious point of transatlantic discord. In the past year the Europeans have suffered what the French finance minister, Jacques Delors, calls a "third oil shock." Unempolyment, which grew by only 8.6 percent in the United States, rose by 22 percent in France, 44 percent in West Germany and 69 percent in Britain. Except for West Germany, the major European countries also suffered higher rates of inflation than the United States.
Currency depreciation explains much of the difference. In the past year the French franc went down against the dollar by more than 35 percent, the German mark by more than 30 percent and the Italian lira by more than 40 percent. Oil imports, which have to be paid for in dollars, cost the Europeans that much more. To hold down balance-of-payment deficits and to stay competitive with the United States in attracting investment, the Europeans all kept interest rates high -- which reduced business activity and increased unemployment.
Francois Mitterrand, the new president of France, and Helmut Schmidt the chancellor of West Germany, have both blamed the "third oil shock" on high American interest rates. But French and Herman financial authorities admit that for years they pushed Washington to raise interest rates, the better to fight inflation. So while delighted to gripe, the Europeans are not going to go to the mat on economic policy for a while.
North-South issues represent a second big item of disagreement. The Europeans constantly attack the Reagan administration for the application of military means to social problems. They insist the way to deal with unrest in Asia, Africa and Latin America is through social reform, financed by economic concessions from the industrialized countries of the North to the developing countries of the South.
A solid commercial motive lies behind the European emphasis on a North-South dialogue. Far more than in the United States, European prosperity depends on trade with the underdeveloped world. But while talking up a North-South dialogue, the Europeans are very reluctant to make important concessions. They feature words over deeds. The United States can square itself with the Europeans simple by more generous rhetoric on North-South matters.
Relations with the Soviet Union compose a third big bone of contention. The Germans, in paticular, fear that the tough anti-Soviet diplomatic line embraced by the administration and the American military buildup will provoke the Russians to strike -- perhaps in Poland, perhaps elsewhere -- in ways that would cut economic and cultural ties and maybe even make Europe the battleground in a nuclear war.
So the Europeans are constantly engaging the Russians in dialogue. Former Chancellor Willy Brandt has just returned to Bonn after talks on Poland and arms control with President Leonid Brezhnev in Moscow. Lord Carrington, the British foreign secretary, went to Russia Monday with a proposal supported by all the main European governments for a settlement on Afghanistan.
The United States, under prodding from the Europeans, has agreed to begin talking about limiting nuclear missiles in Europe -- Theater Neclear Forces or TNF -- when Secretary of State Alexander Haig meets with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko at the United Nations in the fall. But there is disagreement inside the administration as to what these talks about talks should cover. While Haig is prepared to move quickly from discussion of missiles in Europe to talk about all strategic weapons, the Pentagon seems prepared to talk about TNF almost forever. It is a mark of the difference that to hold his team together, President Reagan wrote out in his own hand the instructions carried by Haig to the May meeting of NATO ministers in Rome.
Soviet behavior does not look -- at least to me -- particularly scary at this time. The attitude shown toward Poland and the keenness to talk with Europeans suggest that Moscow is playing a waiting game. Certainly the United States ought not to rush into arms control talks with the Russians before settling on an agreed position.
But eventually President Reagan is going to have to formulate an American stance on arms control. Instead of waiting for events to force his hand, it is far better -- if only to quiet the Europeans -- that he begin to pull the administration together on arms control soon -- which is to say beginning now.