Beset by recession, straining to stay competitive in a fast-changing world economy, the United States and some of its closest business partners are rattling swords and exchanging bitter recriminations over international trade policy.
US Special Trade Representative William Brock has called 1982 the most crucial year in international trade since World War II. The carefully crafted multilateral trade agreements represented by GATT -the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade - face critical tests in the coming months.
''At no time during GATT's existence have relations between dominant trading nations been more strained and menacing than they are now,'' GATT director general Arthur Dunkel told a Washington audience July 15.
The United States' most troubled relationship is with Europe. The Commerce Department has, in a preliminary decision, ruled that European Community (EC) countries unfairly subsidize steel exports. Both sides are upset over the other's agricultural trade practices. Against this background, President Reagan's decision to further restrict use of American technology in the Soviet-European gas pipeline has infuriated EC countries.
The sanctions are already being battered. On July 13, a consortium of West German banks agreed to supply the Soviets with $1.1 billion to $1.6 billion in credit needed to purchase pipeline equipment.
''The pipeline embargo is not doing any serious damage to the US economy,'' says Edward A. Hewitt, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. ''But it is certainly wreaking havoc in Europe.''
In the near term, the course of US-European relations will be greatly affected by these events:
* President Reagan's decision on the fate of the US-Soviet grain pact. The agreement expires Sept. 30. In light of the pipeline sanctions, Europeans would likely consider continued US grain sales to the Soviets an act of blatant hypocrisy, trade experts say.
''Grain has all along been symbolic,'' says Harald Malmgren, a Washington trade consultant. ''Just talking about it infuriates the Europeans.''