The Atlantic Alliance, that noble Western chateau, is getting run down. The facade still looks good, and no one was missing from the souvenir photo at the last council meeting in Brussels. But the walls show decay, several rooms are out of service and the heating, telephone and roof need overhaul.

Can the building be saved? This is not sure. Should another be built? The question is already being asked. The Polish crisis, testing the solidity of Atlantic institutions, makes it evident that the alliance's European wing is cracked by two redoubtable destructive forces: impotence and fear.

The decay is serious because it is longstanding, insidious and has several origins. First of all, the old postwar shocks have in recent years multiplied and been accelerated: Arab-Israeli crises with the half-failure of Camp David, the West's loss of its Iranian bastion, Soviet penetration in Africa, Angola and the Indian Ocean, the cutoff of SALT talks, the occupation of Afghanistan, the assassination attempt on the pope, the assassination of Sadat and, finally, the "normalization" of Poland.

All these different events have shaken the old structure. They have little by little inserted into public opinion the idea that as time passes the West is losing ground, that the brutality of Soviet imperialism meets no effective sanction, that the oil crisis is strangling the economies of developed and free countries.

These events have injected poison into Europe. At first it was an uneasy feeling. Today it is fear. Millions of Europeans see foreign policy as a fatality.

The main damage to Atlantic institutions lies obviously in Europe and in troubled relations between Europe and the United States. Actually, almost all European nations are discovering today what de Gaulle foretold 20 years ago, amid scandal: that European security could not be founded on unlimited and eternal confidence in the American umbrella.

This idea, which inspired France to build its own nuclear force, has become over the last 20 years a banality accepted by all Europe's non-nuclear nations. It is now burrowing deeply into public opinion. It is leaving German power in disarray. It is nourishing Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's Ostpolitik. It is behind a hypocritical shirking by the alliance's European powers from installation on their soil of American Pershings to balance off Soviet SS20s.

Europeans and Americans have helped, each in their own way, to open the gap. The eclipse of American power caused the first cracks. After Vietnam, the erratic and floating Carter presidency inspired doubts in Europe about the vigor of American muscle. America's bad management of the Iranian and Afghanistan crises and especially the acceptance, little by little, of Soviet military supremacy have shaken the confidence of even the most "Atlantic" Europeans. By that, I mean the Germans, who witnessed the swift fadeout of an era when an American president could say at Berlin: "Ich bin ein Berliner."

At the same time, Europeans saw that the center of gravity for American strategic and economic interests turned from an exclusively Atlantic axis toward Latin America and particularly the Pacific.

This realization could have -- should have -- awakened Western Europe. It should have led the Europeans toward more will and more solidarity to recover American favor and to encourage the United States to get a grip on itself. But the opposite happened.

France alone -- which precisely because it expected less from America stands more closely beside it -- clearly comes out today for strong defense policies.

Other European nations take refuge in a timid pullback. German and Scandinavian youth frolic in pacifism. Above all, governments continue their sideways maneuvers to avoid stationing of Pershing missiles. They urge -- with some success -- that the United States abandon the famous linkage theory. We see today that the Geneva Euromissile negotiations resume as if nothing happened in Poland.

The Europeans, particularly Germans, are fixing themselves in economic dependence on Moscow, convinced that their fragile economies and the open would of unemployment would not stand up under the suppression of commercial links, including the pipelines Eastern nations have cleverly encouraged.

The Soviet Union, as a good chess player, is watching. It is not in a hurry. It believes the "Finlandization of Europe" will not have to be imposed by force. Europe itself, unless it wins a deferment, will one day or another suggest the idea to Moscow when fear will have everywhere taken over.

From now on the risk resides more in Europe and its public cave-ins than in the Soviet Union and its ambitions. It lies in this sweet drug of the mind called "security first" which, from the welfare system to the law of the least effort, is deadening the sense of initiative and resistance of our citizens.

It is a problem of morals as much as politics when in London, Stockholm or Paris citizens look more and more to the state as a tutor to settle their destiny. A day is coming in our democracies when governments elected by citizens will acquire the defects of the citizens themselves and will seek to avoid by any means the obligation to fight back against adversity. Ever since democracies have existed in the world, they have defeated dictator ships only when a popular will inspired them.