Getting along in the alliance

Strains and differences appear to be tugging at Western unity as the leaders of the seven major democratic industrialized nations prepare for their summit meeting in Venice later this month. The passing of Japanese Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira adds but another note of uncertainty as the allies try to come to grips with the severe economic and political problems confronting the West. The task before them is simply stated: Can they muster enough unity of view and purpose to face up to the challenge posed by the emergence of the Soviet Union as a full-fledged military power? We think they can, but this will require patient and determined effort.

There are legitimate concerns on both sides of the Atlantic. Thus, many Europeans have lost confidence in President Carter's leadership and ability to steer a consistent foreign policy course. More than that, they worry about the growing power of the US Congress in the post-Watergate climate and consequent weakness of any US president in following through on diplomatic agreements like the crucial SALT treaty, or essential policies like energy development. The United States, for its part, is irritated by Western Europe's less-than-wholehearted support for US-generated moves designed to pressure Iran and the Soviet Union on the issues of the hostages and Afghanistan. Some American officials feel the Europeans give lip service to "standing up to the Russians" but are unwilling to do so at the expense of trade and other economic benefits.

To describe the current state of affairs as a crisis in the Western alliance seems an exaggeration, however. What is needed above all is to put these and other disagreements in historical perspective. Ever since World War II there have been conflicts of approach and outlook within the alliance. These were dictated initially by the fact that Europe felt itself weak and subservient to its dominant American partner, later by Europe's desire to wean itself from dependence on US economic hegemony, and today by its determination to play a more weighty and equitable role in the making of policies affecting not only European but global stability. Now that Western Europe has become in effect a world economic power, it is natural that its leaders should speak out in their own right and seek to exert both an economic and a political influence in global affairs. Fast-changing political and economic conditions throughout the world only add impetus to this European compulsion.

That frictions and disagreements develop as both sides adjust to new circumstances is also natural. It will ever be so and should not be a source of surprise. The important thing is that beneath the day-to-day strains and misunderstandings lies fundamental agreement on the danger of the Soviet challenge and the continuing need for close cooperation -- both to counter growing Soviet assertiveness and to help the third world become strong enough politically and economically to frustrate Soviet ambitions. How to achieve their goals may be a matter of often-sharp debate, but a common perception of the world and a recognition that allied collaboration is imperative remain a unifying force.

Let it not be forgotten, too, that much of the recent quarreling and sniping takes place against the background of election politics. Mr. Carter, as the Europeans rightly judge, more often than not has played to a domestic rather than international audience in his diplomatic statements. His open opposition to the European Community's initiative on the Middle East, for instance, seems largely aimed at home constituencies. Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and even President Giscard d'Estaing also are sensitive to upcoming elections. Mr. Schmidt, for political reasons, has played down the constructive contribution West Germany has made to NATO's defense and to bolstering Turkey's economy -- contributions the American public should be more aware of.

This is not to ignore some difficult problems within the Western alliance or the necessity on both sides to keep working at making the alliance strong and effective. The US needs to appreciate more, perhaps, the different perspective Western Europe has on the Soviet Union by virtue of its geographic proximity; it is not unreasonable for the West Germans and others to feel that detente in Europe, which has brought palpable benefits to both East and West, should not be sacrificed by overreaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. President Carter must also realize the damage to allied unity caused by an erratic diplomacy and by his inclination often to put political expediency above the national interest. He must strive for a more mature conduct of foreign policy, and Congress must help him.

Americans, on the other hand, can be pardoned if they see West Europeans acting with less spirit of self-sacrifice and responsibility than their complaints about US policy would warrant. We are not the first to observe that Europeans criticize the United States for not exercising leadership (or consulting) but, when it does, or tries to, they sometimes are disinclined to share the common responsibility of tough actions.

In sum, we throw in our lot with the optimists rather than the pessimists. The alliance is under strain for a variety of reasons but it remains basically sturdy and vital. In every decade, in every year, the need is for a fresh understanding of changed national and global conditions -- and for the maturity and wisdom to adjust allied relations to cope with them.

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