If Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan were to get together, they could commiserate over the difficulties of leading an alliance. But their problems are widely different.
Soviet leader Gorbachev is trying to lead his East-bloc allies down the glasnost road, toward greater ``openness,'' an easing of Stalinist-era economic controls, and a deliberate encouragement of economic initiative and enterprise. He has run into resistance, particularly during his visit last week to Romania.
Mr. Reagan is asking his European NATO allies, and Japan, to join the United States in patrolling the Persian Gulf and helping to protect the shipping there. Last week, US Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger met with the defense ministers of the NATO alliance in Brussels. He came away with no new commitment of support.
The irony in the Gorbachev problem is that the Soviet leader is trying to persuade the Romanians and Czechoslovaks, the more economically backward of his allies, to ease up on the system that Moscow long ago imposed upon them. The time has come when stagnation in the Romanian economy has become a drag on the Warsaw Pact community.
Mr. Reagan's main difficulty is that his allies have lost confidence in his administration's ability to arrive at a coherent policy and pursue it consistently.
While Mr. Weinberger was proposing joint action, they were noticing that there have been wildly different versions of what the US wants to do and might do in the Gulf area since May 17, when the USS Stark was struck by an Iraqi missile with a loss of 37 men.
Is the US proposing to protect all shipping in the Gulf from any attacker? Is the purpose to be neutral between Iran and Iraq, or is Washington ``tilting'' to Iraq's side? Is the US prepared to retailiate or even go to war against Iran if a US vessel is struck by an Iranian weapon?
No one in Washington was able to provide a clear and convincing answer to these questions.
The French remember going into Lebanon with Mr. Reagan in 1982 on what was supposed to be a peacekeeping mission. They were car-bombed, the same day the US Marine barracks was blown up. Both bombings were by Arabs striking against intruders who, in Arab eyes, were actually supporting the Christian regime of President Amin Gemayel against Druze and Shiite Muslim factions at war with that regime.
The British were unhappy allies in Lebanon. They even more distinctly remember the bombing of Libya, done in part by US aircraft flying from British airfields. The British have no intention of getting mixed up in another US military operation outside Europe, particularly not in the middle of an election.
The British will continue to maintain that force in the Gulf. But they will not take part in an operation that might be construed by those in the area as being in support of Iraq against Iran. The British wish to be strictly neutral between Iraq and Iran.
The effort to line up the allies for a common policy in the Gulf could hardly have come at a more inauspicious moment. The British are in the full flood of an election campaign that demands prime attention from the leadership. In addition, West Germany has been deep in a domestic political tussle over whether to go along with Mr. Reagan's project for elimination of all intermediate-range nuclear missiles from Europe.
West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl was riding the crest of a wave of popularity until this nuclear weapons proposal nearly split himself and his Christian Democratic Party away from the Free Democrats who are his junior partner in the government coalition. He has been publicly less than eager for the double-zero option, but the Free Democrats embraced it and gained popularity and voter strength by so doing.
The French are already a major supplier of weapons to Iraq. Do they want to go any deeper?
As for the Japanese, they are gradually and reluctantly building up their naval forces under US prodding. Their strength is well below what Washington would like it to be just for the defense of Japanese interests in their own waters.
The Japanese have a total of 34 destroyers and 18 frigates in their principal surface combatant fleet. The Soviet Pacific fleet alone has 66 comparable surface ships (30 corvettes, 21 frigates, and 14 destroyers). The Soviets also have 15 cruisers and two carriers based at Vladivostok. Japan has no comparable ships.
Would it be sensible to subtract Japanese surface ships from Pacific waters for use in the Gulf? And besides, Japan has a policy of keeping a low profile in the Gulf. It does a lot of business with Iran and hopes to do more. It is a major buyer of Saudi oil. It wants no trouble with any of the Mideast oil states.
In outside world eyes, Mr. Weinberger's trip to Brussels, in part to gain companions for US naval vessels in the Gulf, is itself evidence of a lack of understanding of the interests of others. Does Washington have a policy for the Gulf, or merely a reflexive knee-jerk reaction when something goes wrong?
The plain fact that emerges from recent events is that the allies have lost confidence in the ability of the Reagan administration to arrive at a serious foreign policy and to manage it seriously. It is regarded as being erratic, unpredictable, and unreliable. Others would prefer not to get mixed up with the latest Washington groping for a group policy toward the Gulf and the Iran-Iraq war.