Offended by the reluctance of our European friends to follow our lead in invoking sanctions against Poland and the Soviets, many Americans are reacting as did the Duke of Wellington when he first became prime minister. "I met with my Cabinet this morning," he wrote in his diary, "and the most extraordinary thing happened; I gave my orders and they started discussing them."

Certainly such foot-dragging as we are now witnessing would not have occurred a decade ago. Why, then, has our authority so dramatically faded? The answer is not, as the Reagan administration seems to believe, solely that Europeans no longer trust us to defend them in view of our lagging military strength and that they will fall in line once we have again become strong. Nor is it, as some Americans self-righteously assume, that European hesitancy over sanctions derives principally from the fact that they are too greedy to make sacrifices for the common cause. There is, of course, something in both points, but they are by no means the major explanation.

The central reason European nations are not snapping briskly to attention is that they no longer trust our judgment and good sense. They feel, with considerable justice, that America has, for more than a decade, pursued a fumbling and unpredictable course with little discernible pattern, and they are alarmed by the Reagan administration's compulsive flow of tough talk. Thus, more and more Europeans are asking: can the current administration--or indeed any administration chosen under our prevailing electoral system--ever again develop an informed and sophisticated strategy-- what lawyers call "a theory of the case"? Or will America continue to flail about until it precipitates ultimate disaster?

For many West Europeans, the most reassuring time in recent history was when we seemed actively pursuing a policy of d,etente. Flawed as it was, d,etente was intellectually and emotionally satisfying: it acknowledged the existence of diversity in Soviet politics and rejected the banal hypothesis of a rigid ideologically driven adversary immune from internal conflicts and unresponsive to world opinion.

But the backlash from our Vietnam adventure, the sordidness of Watergate and the failure of the Carter administration to map a firm and steady course gave America's hard-line ideologues time to regroup and left d,etente with a bad name. Congress contributed with self-defeating and abrasive measures such as the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which insulted the Soviets without hurting them. Now the Reagan administration has compounded the problem by pursuing a theory of the case that is both outmoded and jejune.

The doctrine-according-to-Reagan is that the Soviet Union is to blame for all major world ills. Were it not for the Kremlin, the world could live in idyllic harmony. From this the president concludes that we can preserve world peace only by constant and implacable opposition to the Russians and an incessant denunciation of all their works. That sterile doctrine leaves no room for even limited agreements with our aggressive adversary. As Europeans see it, we reluctantly consented to participate in weapons talks only when confronted with the threat of mutiny.

To many Europeans with long memories, the administration's bluster sounds ominously like a prelude to war. They see its basic assumption as palpably wrong. The two most searing setbacks suffered by the Western democracies in the past decade--the fall of the shah and the emergence of OPEC--could not possibly be blamed on the Soviet Union. Why, then, do we view the world in only two dimensions? More often than not local conflicts have local causes. As the Arabs told Secretary of State Alexander Haig when he tried to fit their troubles into a Procrustean East-West framework, "our most dangerous enemy is not Moscow but Israel." Europeans are exhibiting a similar reaction to the administration's effort to attribute the turmoil in El Salvador and Nicaragua solely to the insidious designs of the Kremlin and its minion, Fidel Castro. Why, they ask, can't we recognize the underlying social, economic and political injustices that doom those tormented countries to bitter internal struggles?

If many Europeans now regard American policy as erratic and unpredictable, they are right. They watched President Reagan denouncing the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan as "unacceptable," then withdrawing the wheat embargo, which was our only serious instrument of leverage. Faced with the Polish crisis, they saw the administration take only cheap token measures, then demand that Europe follow suit at a far greater cost. The brooding question in European minds today is whether the administration has a foreign policy or merely an obsession with Moscow and a disturbing addiction to bombs and tanks as the only instruments of policy. Some Europeans are even beginning to doubt that America's new armaments effort is primarily in tended to keep the peace; indeed, some

read our bellicose rhetoric as accepting

the probability of a nuclear conflict that

--regardless of the vaporings of our nu clear metaphysicians-- we will never be

able to limit. Thus Europe's reluctance

to have medium-range missiles on its

soil results more than anything else

from a growing suspicion--reinforced

by careless White House utterances--

that the Reagan administration regards

those missiles not as instruments of

deterrence but weapons of war.

We shall gravely err if we do not try

to comprehend the conditioning influ ence of history on Europeans. They

have long been accustomed to wars

every generation, and they have learned

from experience to avoid fights if possi ble--particularly those on their own

soil. So some feel tempted to try to get

out of the way of the superpowers--to

sit on the mountain and watch the

tigers fight, conveniently forgetting that

tigers, too, can climb mountains. Theirs

is a counsel of growing despair, for they

no longer believe, as they did for many

years, that America can--and will--

maintain the peace; instead we may get

them into war.

If America is to regain its commanding voice in the alliance--and indeed to hold the West together--it must put aside the blustering doctrinaire positions in which it is now indulging. A Europe frightened by our bellicosity will not follow our lead and help us rebuild Western strength; it will support us only if convinced that we know where we are going and that we are not heading toward war through overcommitment to a simplistic ideology. Sooner or later America must learn a rudimentary but essential lesson: to take common measures against Moscow in full agreement with our allies is far more effective--and far less costly to the West--than to take more drastic actions unilaterally and thus play into the hands of Soviet efforts to tear the alliance apart.