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Western allies stop playing the waiting game

By Joseph C. Harsch / May 30, 1980

Now it is West Germany's Chancellor Helmut Schmidt who is going off eastward to have a chat with Moscow's Leonid Brezhnev. This follows by two days a move by the Saudi Arabian government into the stalled Middle East peace talks. And that in turn follows by a week French President Giscard D'Estaing's surprise rendezvous with Mr. Brezhnev in Warsaw.

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Add that the West European allies of the United States are themselves working on plans of their own to move into the Mideast problem on the assumption that Washington leadership in this matter is now paralyzed by domestic US politics. The anxiety both in Western Europe and among the Saudis is that unless the present Mideast stalemate is broken, the situation between Israel and the Arabs will settle back into longterm futility.

All of which adds up to the fact that Washington no longer has exclusive rights over planning and leading the afffairs of the Western allies and their associates -- least of all during a distracting presidential election campaign.

The prospect of Mr. Schmidt following Mr. Giscard d'Estaing to the Brezhnev reception room does not mean capitulation to Moscow. But it certainly does mean a sea change in the nature of the relationship among those countries that hope to keep out of Moscow's control without risking a nuclear war in the process. They no longer sit back and wait for Washington to take the initiative in alliance matters. They are thinking and acting on their own.

The change has been triggered, but not caused, by growing dissatisfaction with the way Washington has managed or attempted to manage the three main problems in today's world. As the friends and allies outside see matters, Washington has bungled the problem of rescuing the hostages held in Iran, has let itself be distracted by the hostage problem from the more important problem of Soviet aggression in Afghanistan, and has lost control of the Middle East situation.

So the others are moving into all three areas and launching new initiatives which, in their effect, leave Washington sitting on the sidelines complaining about the noncooperativeness of the allies.

The allies are being noncooperative whenever they think Washington leadership is either not serving the best interests of the whole community, and their own in particular, or is being ineffective.

As the allies see matters, the campaign for sanctions against Iran was disserving the community. They all sympathize with the desire to rescue the hostages. They all agree (as do even the communist countries) that the holding of hostages is illegal and wrong. But they do not think that Washington's method of shifting back and forth between negotiation and pressures, either economic or military, is any way to get the hostages released or serve the larger interests of the Western community.

They doubt that the Olympic Games boycott is going to influence Moscow toward ending its military adventure in Afghanistan.

And above all, they doubt Washington's ability to take advantage of the present situation in the Middle East to regain the lost momentum from Camp David.