Where never is heard an encouraging word

Our Western world seems to be full of doomsayers right now putting the inclination of our affairs in bleak and discouraging terms. They put it all so bleakly that it's time to ask whether things are really in quite such a parlous and perilous state after all.

Our jounalistic columnist colleague Joseph Kraft takes off for Europe and the Middle East confessing "a sense of black despair." He thinks that United States "economic and foreign policy verge on collapse." And as he surveys the horizon he sees "no Lochinvar riding to the rescue."

A distinguished Washington foreign policy experts comes back from a gathering in London of his peers from NATO countries and Japan reporting an agreement among them all that the modern industrial democracies are suffering from a broad range of crises and, perhaps worst of all, no one is doing anything about them.

The nature of the crises is no mystery. We are all familiar with the litany.

The modern democracies of North America, Western Europe, and Japan are plagued by inflation, which they do not know how to curb, and by industrial stagnation and declining productivity, which they are unable to correct. Their money system is clogged and unsatisfactory. There is a growing demand for trade protectionism that could wreck the whole system.

Their political organization is unable to compel release of the US hostages from imprisonment in Iran or deter the Soviets from savaging the ancient independence of Afghanistan. They can't agree among themselves to boycott the summer Olympic Games in Moscow. They can't even agree on how to crown the fine start of Camp David with a comprehensive Middle East peace between Israel and all of its Arab neighbors.

Their military power languishes from weakness in the economic base as well as from laxness in the political organizations that decide when and how to use such military power as they do have.

All of which makes it easy to conclude that there is no more balm in Washington, London, Paris, Bonn, or Tokyo than there is in Gilead. So what is to keep the men of Moscow from plodding ponderously on toward an ever-stronger position in the world?

Well, for someone accustomed to think that the Western democracies are entitled to enjoy and endless rise in individual living standards without effort , an unlimited supply of energy without further investment of treasure and some sweat as well, and a docile Soviet Union, things do leave much to be desired.

Yet are we not expecting more than we are entitled to have without tightening our belts, reviving our capacity for innovation, and standing more vigorously to our ramparts?

If you had lived through the great depression of the '30s with Stalin building a communist tyranny in Russia by starving the peasants literally by the millions while Hitler was building an equally evil facist tyranny in Germany -- well, then, today's world would not seem quite so depressing and discouraging.

There is no world on the horizon even though Moscow is methodically stamping out resistance in Afghanistan. That country, with not a single inch of railway line and only a primitive road network, is not on the m ain highway of conquest. No doubt the Kremlin would be happy to exploit some new opportunity for expansion of its influence should one occur. But there is no other opportunity beckoning to Moscow at the moment. Iran could, of course, become such an opportunity if Washington misplayed the hostages' hand.

Africa is more or less stable. The transition from white to black rule in Rhodesia is under way more succesfully than London or Washington had dared to hope. The new Prime Minister, Robert Mugabe, has behaved so far with wisdom and restraint. He has reassured his own white minority, and reached at least a tentative understanding for peacful coexistence with the white government of South Africa.

President Carter has not yet achieved release of the hostages from Iran or persuaded Israel to withdraw from occupied Arab territory in return for peace with its neighbors. But he has avoided driving Arabs and other Islamic countries toward Moscow, an achievement of importance.

While all of the modern industrial democracies are suffering from economic stagnation, none is in a condition of actual deep depression and massive unemployment. The United States, for example, has more people employed (and a higher percentage of its population employed) than ever before in its history. Yes, real purchasing power is declining a little. But this is largerly due to the fact that those who are officially recorded as employed are sharing their well being with the millions of illegal immigrants whose work, and compenstion, is unrecorded.

President Carter would like to be able to improve the military posture of the West more than is being done at present. But the US economic base would not sustain a sudden rise in defence expenditure. And it takes time to design, perfect, and then build the weapons of modern warfare.

Even if the US economy were booming, it would be difficult to raise the pace of rearming much above present levels. The Navy is not yet in agreement with itself over the contest between more big carriers and small sealane control ships. There is still uncertainty inside the Pentagon over the MX missile.

And how well are the Soviets really doing?

They are accustomed to a high rate of increase in productivity. But their economy is beginning to bump its head against several ceilings. The Soviet Union is running short of manpower, due in part to inefficiency in industry and overuse of manpower in the government bureaucracy and in the armed services. It is expected to run short of oil within the next few years, with no sufficient alternative sources of energy yet in sight.

Also Moscow is going through a crisis in leadership. Leonid Brezhnev's hand is still on the helm, but it grows weaker and is no longer providing firm control. There is a struggle over the succession.

Most Western Kremlim-watchers agree that Moscow will be dangerous and somewhat unpredictable during this transition period. But they also agree that Moscow may be reaching its peak, probably around 1985, the Soviet Union will be a declining force in the world.

So the problem for the West is to muddle through the next few years. And while there is no Lochinvar in sight, would a Lochinvar know how to end inflation any better than Jimmy Carter of Margaret Thatcher?

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