IT WAS inevitable that there would be at least one more huge transatlantic row as the pipeline sanctions ended. The Americans and the Europeans had got themselves into a position from which there was no graceful and silent exit. The sanctions would continue, President Reagan had declared, until the Europeans agreed to tighten their dealings with the Soviets. The French, in particular, had replied that since the sanctions were illegal and had no force in France, there could be no question of French concessions to get them repealed.
When Mr. Reagan announced the end of the sanctions on Saturday, he claimed a victory in the form of a "substantial agreement" on East-West trade. The French retorted, in a rage, that if any agreement existed they were not a party to it.
Has all hope of joint action toward the Soviets now vanished? Not at all. France is always open to discussions of future policy on Soviet trade, Mr. Mitterrand amiably said yesterday. He is prepared to consider restrictions, in other words, but he is not prepared to let Mr. Reagan brandish that concession as a trophy.
But perhaps it bears saying in this city that Mr. Reagan and his sanctions put the European governments, and particularly Mr. Mitterrand's, in truly intolerable political situations. No European government, least of all France's, could afford to be seen by its own voters as retreating under American pressure -- particularly while the Americans kept selling grain to Russia. The sanctions attempted to assert the precedence of American law over the Europeans'. The Europeans saw that as a trespass on their sovereignty.
Currently, Mr. Mitterrand's government of the left is being forced by its economic troubles to retreat from some of the left's most cherished goals. If he were suspected of knuckling under to the Americans, he would immediately be ground to bits between his own party and Gaullist nationalism.
The lesson of this episode is that there are large differences between the Western European democracies and the United States regarding the Soviet Union, how to deal with it and how to trade with it. Possibilities exist for a trade policy that would be, even by Mr. Reagan's standard, an improvement. But if he simply tries to force his own ideas on his allies, he will do more damage to the alliance than to the Russians.