THE annual conference of the International Institute for Strategic Studies was different this year. It concluded on a quiet note. Emerging from the last session, one old-timer said to another, ``We didn't have any arguments.'' Said another, ``No one seems to be afraid of the Russians anymore.'' Said a third, ``It did seem a bit dull without any crisis.'' The annual three-day IISS conference is a gathering of people who spend much of their time in the world of foreign affairs. It includes diplomats, military experts, intelligence people, a few politicians, and a sprinkling of journalists. They come from NATO and friendly countries. This year, for the first time, mainland China was represented.
Usually in the past some one subject dominated the three-day session. One was dominated by the American push for a ``multilateral force,'' meaning a unified military force in which Americans, British, French, Germans, etc., would be melded together in the crew of a warship.
Nothing ever came of the idea. The Europeans simply refused to buy it.
Another conference was dominated by a bitter issue between Americans and Europeans over the pipeline to carry Siberian natural gas to Western Europe. The Americans wanted the European allies to give it up. They refused.
Two years ago at Avignon, France, the conference was dominated by President Reagan's ``star wars.'' The allies were deeply disturbed at the implication. They were afraid that it might lead to the United States defending itself and forgetting about them.
This year, at Kyoto, in Japan, there was neither hotly contested argument nor talk of crisis. There was simply no sense of crisis. Argue if you like that the Russians are lulling us into a false sense of security and will pull some unpleasant surprise tomorrow. You may be correct. But at the gathering in Kyoto of many of the top foreign policy experts of the Western world there was no general sense of a present or serious danger from Moscow.
We talked about a lot of interesting things such as subtle changes in the Chinese-Soviet relationship and why the Soviets are helping rearm North Korea (a move in conflict with Soviet proposals for ``normal'' relations with the Chinese). The one subject that pervaded the meeting, was the problem of tariff protectionism and what it is doing, and may in the future do, to the cohesion of the Western trading community. Insofar as you can judge today's world from the perceptions of the experts who met in Kyoto, the real present danger to the peoples of the Western and free world is economic.
Can the United States get its trade back into balance without damaging the well-being of its allies, friends, and clients? How much can US relations with Japan stand the strain of the present imbalance in their trade?
During the first decade after World War II the American system of alliances and associations was built on the unique ability of the United States to supply the food, the clothing, the equipment that friends and allies needed to survive and on which to rebuild their shattered economies. The US was the great supplier both of consumer goods and of investment credit.
But what do the friends and allies need from the US today? They have themselves gone modern. They have built their own industries. They have bank balances. Those bank balances are being built on selling in the American market. They no longer need American goods or even American credit. They do need American markets.
But can the association of the US with its friends and allies be sustained indefinitely on the need of the others for a market in the US? How much can the US take of foreign goods?
The original cement of the alliance was the ability of the US to supply goods and credit. What does one use as a substitute when those who have been nurtured to economic maturity by US generosity no longer need the goods or credit? The problem is new. The experts are facing it and worrying about it. They are a long way from finding the answers.
But unless the answers are found, the problem of coordinating the economies of the free world can do what the Russians never could. There is greater danger to the unity of the free world today from unsolved economic problems than from the men of Moscow.