During the next two months, the Atlantic alliance will be submitted to what may be the severest test of solidarity in its more than 30 years of existence. Between now and the May 24 deadline for registration in the Moscow Olympics, Internal strains and outside pressure are foreseen that could usher in another of the occasioanl periods of "agonizing reappraisal" in Atlantic relations that US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles predicted in 1953.
Although there have been a number of serious rifts between the United States and Europe since those early days, National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski's declaration on European reaction to the Soviet Intervention in Afghanistan was especially sharp.
The White House adviser's irritated call for Europe to respond to the Afghanistan situation "not only rhetorically, but tangibly" is seen in Europe as the signal for a new round of intense diplomatic activity over the divisive issue.
The complaints made by Mr. Brzezinski followed a series of encounters between American and European leaders in the past few weeks and indicated that the two sides of the Atlantic were still sharply at odds about their attitudes toward the Soviet Union, despite summit declarations of agreement and understanding about the remaining nuances in policy.
They make clear that significant differences between the Western allies still exist despite visits by Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to London, Paris, Bonn, and Rome, and a more recent trip to Washington by West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt.
The rift is bound to be magnified and exploited in the weeks leading up to the decisions required in May concerning national participation in the Moscow Olympics.
This question, as well as other possible European action toward the Soveit Union, was discussed between Chancellor Schmidt and French President Giscard d'Estaing in a Hamburg meeting this weekend. European Common Market foreign ministers in Brussels will tackle the Olympic question next week and at the European Economic Community summit in the same city at the end of March.
Just as importantly, these topics should be at the heart of possible contacts to be made by Mr. Schmidt with his East German counterpart Erich Honecker and perhaps even Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev before the May 24 limit.
Communist meetings with Chancellor Schmidt and other European leaders in the interim are bound to seek to widen the breach between European and American attitudes toward the Soviet Union and its military action in Afghanistan. Up to now the divergences in the Western camp have developed largely without Soviet interference.
Even after condemning the Soviet assault in Afghanistan in a recent Paris bilateral summit statement, France and West Germany nevertheless avoided siding with the US Olympic, trade, and military reprisals against the Soviet Union.
Chancellor Schmidt did yield to increasing American pressure to increase German defense spending and strongly indicated the situation would prevent Bonn from sending a team to the Moscow Olympics. But before and after his visit to the United States, he and others in Germany have underlined the country's ardent desire to retain relations with East Germany and the Soviet Union.
The Hamburg daily Die Welt observed recently that commerce between West Germany and the Soviet Union was eight times the amount between West Germany and the United States.
French President Giscard d'Estaing and others have also stated that France "is part of the alliance but not aligned." While France and Germany have developed close policy links on a number of issues, the process has not kept France from striking a highly independent diplomatic course, which has proved frustrating at times to European and American allies. The US annoyance with this French attitude surfaced last month when the US Ambassador to Paris characterized some French policies as "neutralist nonsense."
Even the "special relationship" between the British governemnt, which has been the most supportive of US policy, and the United States has shown signs of fraying at times. The British, who devised a European proposal for the neutralization of Afghanistan, have shown impatience with the reversed US stance toward this formula.
The comments that emerge most frequently from both European and American officials in public and private about the state of transatlantic relations revolve around belief that there is too much "inconsistency" or "unpredictability" compounded by a "failure to consult." Europeans repeatedly criticize the Carter administration for shifting policy directions and complain they have been caught off guard by such surprises in connection with the Iranian situation and the proposal to boycott the Olympic Games.
One senior European foreign ministry official listed a catalog of Carter foreign policy shifts in recent years. He noted the US vacillation over trade and financial sanctions toward Iran, its inconsistency over humna rights application, the decision on the neutron bomb installation, the Middle East, energy conservation, monetary affairs, and the export of nuclear power plant material.
Although such characterizations of US foreign policy are not entirely negative, European officials also complain that Americans has too frequently consulted allies but rejected their advice that trade and economic sanctions directed at Iran and the Soviet Union and the Olympic boycott would be unworkable and counterproductive.
There is also widespread acknowledgement in Europe that Europeans themselves are erratic in their policymaking as they are tugged in various directions by American and Soviet pressures and their own national interests.
British Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington last month described the current awkward European and American relationship. "The problem is: How do we move from a feeling of mutual interest to a common assessment of a particular problem to agreement on specific policies. . . . The process is not a tidy one."