The allies: Reagan's turn

By , Robert R. Bowie has been concerned with foreign affairs for 35 years while serving on the Harvard faculty, in various government posts, and as a consultant.

All agree that cooperation between the United States and its allies is essential for security, East-West relations, the Middle East, energy, and economic an other issues. Will the Reagan administration do better than its predecessor in achieving it?

Under President Carter, allied relations were often said to be "in disarray," or even in crisis. The causes cited were many, some with earlier roots: The shifting military balance, vacillation in dealing with the Soviets, inadequate measures on energy, mishandling of the economy, the Palestinian issue. A deeper allied concern, emerging over the decade, was whether the US polity was any longer up to managing its domestic problems and playing its global role.

The election of Mr. Reagan was seen by many abroad as a renewal of American selfconfidence. Some steps by the new administration have reinforced that view. It has already made clear its intent to redress the military balance (though specifics on strategy and forces remain hazy). Its initial stance toward the USSR, tough and even strident, has been adjusted, under allied pressure, to include negotiations on theater nuclear weapons as a counterpart to deploying them in Europe. The energy issue has been muted for the present, probably unfortunately, by the current oil surplus -- resulting from conservation, higher prices, recession, and Saudi excess output. But the divergences on the Middle East remain.

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Yet these steps are piecemeal. The Europeans, and others, still await a comprehensive statement of Mr. Reagan's foreign policy, which will set out coherently his objectives and priorities and some of the specifics for reaching them. Until then allied judgments about the coincidence of interests and about US leadership will be tentative.

Such judgments will also be greatly influenced by how well the Reagan program for the domestic economy copes with inflation, employment, growth, and productivity. Many Europeans, like Wall Street, are skeptical of the supply-side theories, and concerned that the proposed tax cuts would create heavy deficits and inflationary pressures, which will force tight monetary policies and continuing high interest rates. As Chancellor Schmidt stressed, they fear the impact on their economies: the high interest rates discourage investment and delay recovery and the strong dollar drives up the cost of Europe's oil (priced in dollars) and other imports. And the failure to control inflation would itself erode confidence in the US.

Political changes in Europe may make allied cooperation more uncertain and difficult. Schmidt's political base seems less secure than several years ago. In his reelection last fall, his margin was lower than before; the semi-pacificism of the left wing of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) led him to use the threat of resigning to bring it under control; and in the recent Berlin election, the Christian Democrats defeated the SPD which had long governed the city. While Schmidt's tenure of office seems assured as long as the coalition between the SPD and the Free Democratic Party is intact, his authority has been somewhat eroded.

In France, Mitterrand's victory opens a new and uncertain chapter. His platform promises of nationalization and generous social benefits could be economically and politically disruptive.

Yet his cabinet is generally composed of moderates. In foreign policy, he holds firm views on the Soviet Union and is pro-Atlantic alliance and European Community. His actual course will depend heavily on the outcome of the new elections for the assembly a month hence and on how far he has to rely on Communist Party support in the Assembly, since the Socialists can hardly achieve a majority.

Britain, too, is a more uncertain quantity. Its economy is under severe strain as a result of the Thatcher policies. And politically the future is cloudly, with the Labour Party moving left and neutralist, the budding Social Democratic Party a new and untested factor, and the Tories hardly fully united behind their leaders' course. And politics is equally unsettled in the smaller countries.

On the other side of the world, the events in Japan since Prime Minister Suzuki's return from his US visit suggest the sensitivity of that relation.

The obstacles to agreeing on common or comlementary policies and carrying them out are obviously serious. Will the US and its allies be able to overcome them? It is too early to attempt a firm answer. Too many of the critical factors are still unsettled. The visits of Thatcher, Suzuki, and Schmidt the NATO meetings, and the first statements of the Mitterand regime show a strong awareness of the need to work together; otherwise their scope and results were limited.

The summit meeting in Ottawa in July should provide more basis for a judgment. By then some of the uncertainties should be clarified or resolved. And the leaders will have a chance there to show how far they can agree on handling some of their joint problems.

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