Lord Soames was formerly vice president of the Commission of the European Community, responsible for external affairs. He has been a cabinet minister in five departments of the British government and was the last British governor of Rhodesia. Here he discusses the current ragged state of relations between the United States and its Western European allies--and what to do about it.

There have, of course, been strains before in America's troubled partnership with Europe. But the tensions we now face seem to me to be the most worrying ever. And they arise at a time when we can least afford them, when years of suffering the twin evils of inflation and unemployment have made the pressures harder to resist.

Most fundamentally, for the first time the Americans and the Western Europeans are lining up on different sides of the old argument about how to handle the Russians. How much stick and how much carrot? It is dangerous that while Europe sees America as obsessed with the stick, America sees Europe as being interested only in brandishing the carrot. On both sides of the Atlantic there is a disturbing growth in self-righteousness: Americans scorning European "softness" and "creeping neutralism," and European leaders united in denouncing American "hypocrisy" and "brinkmanship" over East-West trade.

Then there is the way in which so many different issues are all coming to a head at the same time. We are facing not just a coincidence but a convergence of crises. The dispute over steel puts a question mark against long-standing assumptions about the free world's progress toward open industrial trading. The long-simmering conflict between America and Europe over farm trade threatens to boil over. The transatlantic dialogue about economic policies seems to be bogged down in a welter of European complaints about American budget deficits, interest rates and the dollar exchange rate.

Meanwhile, on the political front, the diverging views on d,etente highlighted by the gas pipeline issue may well reemerge with even greater virulence as NATO moves in 1983 toward firm decisions on arms control and new deployment. And when the dust settles over the carnage in Lebanon, who can tell whether Europe and America will not find themselves even further apart than before in their attitudes toward the Arab-Israel conflict?

A disturbing feature of the present scene is the fact that we can no longer cover up, defer or resolve our differences by the time-honored device of attributing them to procedural deficiencies. "Lack of consultation," "poor communication," "inadequate machinery": these fig leaves, which have seen us through so many embarrassing moments, can no longer be made to serve, after a decade that has seen more contacts between Western leaders at every level than ever before--culminating in the recent Versailles summit and President Reagan's visit to Europe.

No--we have to face up to the fact that America and Europe are now at loggerheads to an extent they have not been for many a long year. Both are finding it difficult to adjust to the new phase of history through which they are living. America, having moved with extraordinary rapidity from isolation to hegemony, is finding it hard to settle down to the more normal condition of equality--whether with Russia or, in an economic sense, with Europe and Japan. European countries are also finding it hard to adjust to the new relationship that the economic strength of the Community provides --and the responsibilities that go with it.

We are facing a growing agenda of differences. What do we do about it?

There is a strategic choice at stake. Does the catalog of our mounting disagreements illustrate a single fundamental fact, which we must sooner or later acknowledge and embrace, that America and Europe are set on a course of divergence? Are we expecting too much of each other? Or is the Atlantic Community a basic reality on which we can hope with confidence to stand together to overcome or at least to accommodate the present and future conflicts of interest and vision?

The fact that it is difficult, at least in Anglo- Saxon circles, to articulate heresy against the postwar Atlanticist orthodoxy should not blind us to the powerful considerations that support the view that the differences between Europe and America can only get worse. Our economies are characterized by slow growth, unemployment, periodic oil shocks and the rapid development of Asian industrial competitiveness. Does this portend an inexorable tide of protectionism attacking the most sensitive sectors of transatlantic trade? In the strategic context of military parity between the United States and the Soviet Union, and of Western Europe's physical proximity to Russia, how can we prevent different European and American policies and attitudes toward their relations with the Soviets from undermining the unity of the alliance?

It is necessary to face up to these questions. But I, for one, have no doubt that America and Europe can and must find again what Henry Kissinger calls a "common vision and shared goals." It would be truly a paradox of immense and tragic proportions if, having achieved the adulthood promised by the postwar order, Europe and America could not find the maturity to live together in a harmonious partnership.

We must be ready and willing not only to listen to each other (although it is questionable whether even that has been happening lately; two monologues do not make a dialogue), but also to change our respective policies in the light of a genuine dialogue. For example, would a Europe that is really paying attention to the United States continue the present headlong development offits common agricultural policy from protectionism to the conquest of world food markets by subsidy? Or would a United States that is really listening to Europe be so adamant on the tonnage of steel imports?

We must also realize that a test of the strengths of any community, including the community of the West, is the extent to which it is prepared to live by common rules and to adapt to changing circumstances. The way to settle disputes about unfair trading is to agree on and to apply rules that will supplant the unilateral definitions that are now being asserted. This is, for example, if need be the proper way to settle the present crisis over steel: take it to the GATT. We have a new subsidies code; let us apply it.

But the disagreements between Europe and America have reached such dimensions that it will be difficult to resolve each problem separately and on its own merits, through talking together and submitting when necessary to impartial arbitration. We have reached a point at which each distinct problem has to be seen as a facet of the most fundamental issue: what must we do to keep the Atlantic community a living reality?

Are there not important lessons in this regard from the recent past, when George Shultz was secretary of the Treasury? Between 1973 and 1977, those of us who had a measure of responsibility for the trading policies of the European Community and the United States constantly monitored the effects of those policies on Atlantic relations. Many issues were argued out between officials of the Community and of the U.S. departments of Commerce and of Agriculture. Often they were satisfactorily resolved. But when the differences appeared too wide, on issues with a potentially explosive political content, then we saw to it that the foreign offices and the State Department at Cabinet level--and if necessary the White House-- became involved. In this way, our differences came to be viewed in a broader political perspective, and their effects on the general health of the Atlantic Alliance were given due and proper attention by the leaders in our countries, all of whom knew its worth and gave it top priority.

Our first basic rule was that, in both the European Community and the United States, those responsible had to understand and respect the internal political essentials of the other. Looking at today's issues, this would surely mean that the European Community would not expect the Americans to cancel their grain contract with Russia, and the United States would not seek to persuade, still less to force, Europeans to renege on the pipeline contracts they have concluded.

The second golden rule is about timing. If things look like they're getting too hot, don't let too many differences come on the agenda at the same time. Manage it sensibly.

The third rule is never to surprise each other with sudden changes of policy. An essential feature of "damage limitation"--which is the most that can sometimes be aspired to when settling these differences often born of a very real divergence of interests --has to be coherent and consistent policies, well understood by each other, on foreign affairs in general and foreign trade in particular; and not to depart from them without due notice, and consultation when necessary.

Difficult? If it be true that politics is the art of the possible, then the duty of statesmen is to make possible that which is necessary. And the essential ingredient in all this is a high degree of confidence in each other, a tender flower that needs constant nurturing by capable and experienced hands.