The Western alliance system is weathering one of the worst storms in its stormy history. Over the past week reluctant and unhappy allies of the United States have finally done what they had to do. True, they have done an absolute minimum, as slowly as possible, and with every evidence of distaste and disapproval. But they have done it.
The big break in the story of the alliance crisis came in Luxembourg on April 22 when the foreign ministers of the nine members of the European Common Market agreed to help the US in its efforts to release the hostages held in Tehran. The nine decided in principle to impose sanctions against Iran. Alongside that action, and just as reluctantly, they moved more or less into line with the US toward a boycott of the summer Olympic Games in Moscow.
The important feature of the matter is not the reluctance, but they were falling into line with Washington. The reluctance serves to underline the fact that they all -- even the French with their almost pathological desire to disagree with Washington -- recognize that the existence of the alliance overrides in importance their distrust of President Carter's leadership.
That distrust is profound. It is based on the Carter record of vacillation, inconsistency, and often even incoherence in its management of US and alliance foreign policy. The allies think Mr. Carter has got his priorities, his timing, and methods all mixed up. They do not believe that his policy of sanctions against Iran is likely to help the hostages.
But they recognize that Moscow is watching with fascination to see whether this may turn into the moment for which it has long been dreaming and waiting: the moment when frictions and disagreements within the Western alliance system would tear it apart -- and open the world to the Kremlin for the taking.
So, they decided last Tuesday that they would do what they could to increase outside pressures on Iran. They agreed to immediate small measures -- no more weapons of war. And they agreed that they would get ready to impose a full list of economic sanctions when their foreign ministers meet again in Naples on May 17.
The action of the West European allies followed hard on the heels of an equally reluctant decision by Japan to refuse to pay the higher price ($35 a barrel) the Iranians are now asking for their oil. The Canadians announced on April 22 that they would join in the boycott of the Olympic Games. All together it showed the alliance system is working. North America, Western Europe, and Japan are drawing together once more in the face of a common danger, not falling apart.
The sense of priorities are different: President Carter in Washington had his thought fixed primarily on the hostages in Iran. The allies are thinking of the Soviet bear watching for possible openings and opportunities.
To the Europeans, the more cohesion in the alliance, the less likely the bear will be tempted to make some other move in a new sequel to his campaign in Afghanistan. It is the bear that worries them. It is the next flutter of ballots in the next US primary election that concerns the Carter White House. The President must protect himself by trying to do something about the hostages, no matter how unproductive the move is likely to be.
The rallying of the alliance to Mr. Carter's cause is all the more remarkable considering how often he has taken off on some foreign-policy line, and then dropped it, leaving embarrassed and sometimes even humiliated allies to pick up the pieces. His abondoned causes include withdrawal of US troops from Korea, drastic cuts in nuclear weaponry, the neutron bomb, "unacceptable" Soviet troops in Cuba, and repudiation of the recent vote in the UN's Security Council on Israel.
The lack of follow-through on all those projects makes the allies deeply distrustful of any new Carter initiative. How do they know he won't change his mind tomorrow on sanctions against Iran, and without consulting them? Yet across the East-West border in Europe the bear is armed more powerfully than ever, and has just given evidence in Afghanistan of a new willingness to use his weapons outside his home territory. This is no moment for the alliance to languish.
The alliance has been through other storms, one even worse than this one. Probably the hardest test of its survival was when Britain and France invaded Egypt in 1956 in the "Suez crisis." Washington not only disapproved, but also joined Moscow in voting against its own allies in the UN debates. More than that, President Eisenhower ordered an oil boycott against his allies, which, in fact, forced them to break off their invasion of Egypt and go home.
The refusal of Washington to help its allies at Suez in 1956 and to save the French at Dien Bien Phu two years earlier had narrowed the applicability of the NATO alliance. It did not operate automatically outside of Europe.
Contractually, it does not. Washington has no more contractual claim on NATO support over Iran than Britain did over the Suez Canal in 1956, or France over Indochina in 1954.
But when the allies fail to coordinate their policies, opportunities open up for Moscow, partcularly in these days when Moscow has more weapons in some categories than do the allies. British and French can hardly be blamed for remembering how they were let down at Suez and Dien Bien Phu when Mr. Carter asks them for help over Iran. All the more remarkable that they have rallied to his side now, even though giving themselves another three weeks before applying the serious sanctions to Iran.
Perhaps something may happen during those three weeks to spare them the necessity of imposing the sanctions that they suspect will trend to push Iran into Moscow's arms. But no matter how much it goes against their judgment, they will go along for the sake of the appearance of alliance solidarity. "My essential ally, right or wrong," is the slogan they have had to adopt.
It has been a rough passage for the alliance. It has showed the allies yearning for almost any other leader in Washington than Mr. Carter. He is about the last pilot they would chose to put at the helm of their affairs. But as the London Economist remarked last week, ". . . Mr. Carter is, for the present, the best American President we have." So, they did not abandon ship.