Allies to put Carter on the spot in Venice

If it were not for one thing, several presidents and prime ministers might meet in Venice, sign a bland communique, and go home, with the world possibly better for it.

But there is one thing: "Every European leader thinks he can run the Atlantic alliance better than Jimmy Carter."

That assessment, by a veteran observer just back from across the Atlantic, sums up a sense of unease preluding this sixth annual get-together of free-world leaders.

Topics on the Venice agenda are economic -- oil, inflation and recession, North-South relations, ups and downs of the dollar. But this Venice summit, bringing together government chiefs of the United States, Canada, Britain, France, West Germany, Italy, and Japan, has a deeper dimension.

It marks the first time, since the tumultuous events in Iran and Afghanistan, that european and Japanese leaders will talk with, and measure anew, President Carter. Allied leaders know that the long-range interests of their nations tally with those of the United States -- in the Middle East, vis-a-vis the Soviet Union, and in the developing world. Increasingly, however, they wonder whether the US can produce, over the next few years, the kind of stable, consistent leadership needed to protect those interests.

Middle East oil is a case in point. Oil from Arab wells fuels the Japanese and European economies. Shutting off those wells would plunge Japan and Europe into depression, throwing millions of people out of work. So, looking toward stability in the region, European governments launch their so-called "initiative ," seeking to pave the way for an enlarged peace talk role for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

Washington, as the allies see it, is effectively shut off from Middle Eastern leadership during this election year, with all three candidates -- President Carter, Ronald Reagan, and John Anderson -- competing for American Jewish votes.

In one sense, Mr. Carter goes to Venice from a position of strength, where oil is concerned. The US is the only nation among the sevent to have fulfilled its 1979 oil conservation goals and continues to lead the way this year. American officials would like to focus energy discussions on this point, urging their allies to redefine, more realistically, their oil import goals through 1985.

"It now looks," says international economist Lawrence B. Krause, "as though world oil supplies will not match projected demand by 1985. So industrialized powers must redo their important targets, make them lower."

A directive to the end from the heads of government to their ministers would give a political shove to the target-setting work of the International Energy Agency. And that is what hte US hopes to accomplish at Venice, along with agreement on increased cooperation among governments to develop energy sources other than oil.

"The sleeper in the Venice summit," says a key US official, "will be the political element. Will the others," he asks, "criticize Carter's handling of the Afghan, Iranian, and Arab-Israel problems, and will the ensuing discussion subordinate and shove aside economic questions?

If so, then the basic purpose of these summits will have been scuttled. No one expects chiefs of government, assembled for two days of talks, to make concrete decisions on thorny economic questions. The task before the presidents and premiers is to put a political seal of approval on basic policies, to be worked out in detail by lower officials of the seven nations.

"Past summits," said Assistant Treasury Secretary C. Fred Bergsten, "made it easier for a leader to go home and urge an unpopular step on his parliament."

West Germany and Japan, for example, were urged to stimulate their economies -- and did so to accommodate more foreign goods when they were running large trade surpluses.

Apart from the issue of Jimmy Carter's leadership, says a key US official, "The Europeans are baffled by the stalemating of [American] government by the division of power between Congress and president.

"As experienced people," he adds, "the Europeans understand our system, but find it hard to predict how the US will come down on any particular issue."

"However unhappy the allies may be with us," said a longtime summit participant, "they still look to the US for proposals on major issues. And, if the US makes a proposal, in the end -- nine times ou of ten -- the allies go along with the substance of it."

Less sanguine is former Undersecretary of State Joseph J. Sisco. "Come 1981, " he says, "if we don't produce a leader who makes it his top priority to repair the European-US alliance, we will go downhill over the next four years."

"Whoever is president," says Mr. Sisco, "also must undertake a major initiative in the Middle East to move forward on the Arab-Israeli problem. There, in the Gulf area and the Middle East, lies the ultimate confrontation between the US and the Soviets."

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