Venice summit may glue pieces of alliance back together

Behind the public accusations being made against one another by the United States and the nine members of the European Community (EC), there is a common recognition that:

* Basically the Atlantic alliance is healthy. "What unites us remains more important than what divides us," according to one high US official.

* The alliance is badly in need of restructuring.

According to European and US diplomats, the tensions among the allies flow from a breakdown of confidence and of mechanisms. This, in turn, is seen as the result of two major changes that have occurred over the last decade:

First, the Soviet Union has reached military parity with the United States and can no longer be intimidated as it was during the Cuban missile crisis.

Second, Europe has acquired an economic weight equal to that of the United States and a degree of political unity and a will of its own. It is no longer willing to be treated as a junior partner by the US.

"American public opinion and American authorities simply have not yet adjusted to the new balance of power in the world," says one renowned European political figure.

"The heart of the trouble," says a State Department official, "lies in the third world. The Western alliance was conceived in order to protect Western Europe against Soviet aggression. But the East-West contest now lies deeply frozen in Europe and is taking place in the third world, including, of course, the Middle East. The mechanisms of the alliance are of no use with regard to Africa, Asia, Latin America. Besides, we and the Europeans have different views as to how to cope with third-world turbulence.

"The Europeans say, whenever a developing country proclaims itself to be Marxist-Leninist: 'Let us be patient. Dominoes have a tendency to fall back and forth. Nothing is lost forever. Look at China, look at Egypt, look at Ghana. Ethiopia is not lost forever. Let us maintain diplomatic and trade relations with these countries. Let us not push them hopelessly into the Soviet embrace.'

"Many of us, here at the State Department, entirely agree with this way of looking at things. But how can you tell a president of the United States to be patient because a particular African country which claims to be communist may come back to us in 10 years. By that time he will no longer be at the White House. He must denounce that country at the next news conference and punish it.

"Presidential elections and congressional elections don't allow us to have a real long-range policy. There is no room for subtle maneuvering. Countries are categorized as good or bad, friends or foes.

"Now, the Europeans have, just as we do, vital economic interests in the third world which they want to avoid polarizing. They speak up forcefully against some of our tactics which they believe threatening to their interests. Perhaps we don't realize when we complain about a problem in the alliance, that we ourselves, because of our political system, are the problem."

A high-ranking West European official concurs with this analysis: "American diplomacy often moves with the finesse of an elephant. We feel that it is essential to avoid dividing the third world into blocs. Beyond that, our complaint, with this administration, is not that it is too tough, but rather that it lacks firmness vis-a-vis the Soviet Union.

"Toughness means carrying a big stick and negotiating quietly while holding on to it, the opposite of behaving like a loudmouth who carries a small stick. The United States did nothing to prevent Angola, Ethiopia, from falling under Soviet control. It did not move when Afghanistan, two years ago, fell under communist rule.

"This administration's displays of anger are expressions of weakness, not of self-confidence. The problem, as we see it in Europe, is that this administration has continuously wavered, zigzagged, and improvised. . . . Its diplomacy reacts only to the present. . . . In other words, it is one- dimensional."

"Lack of confidence in the American leadership on the European side, lack of confidence in European solidarity on the American side, lack of a common strategy toward the third world are to be listed on the negative side of the alliance. On the positive side: We still live in a bipolar world with Europe divided and we, Americans and Europeans, needing each other in a fundamental way , militarily, politically, economically. We are competitors but within a system that we manage together and that now must be reshaped," one Cabinet-level European official says.

In fact, according to reliable sources, the economic summit of world leaders in Venice June 22 will be used to discuss these problems and try to work out new mechanisms for better consultations among the allies. Venice should also help find ways to cope more efficiently with third-world tremors and exploitation of them by the Soviet Union.

The result of these talks will not be embodied in a communique, nor is it expected that a final agreement will be reached on such complex matters in one meeting. But according to these sources, "These preliminary consultations are to be followed, after the US presidential elections, by more intensive efforts to put the pieces of the alliance back together again."

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