President Reagan's imminent trip to the Versailles economic summit and the NATO summit in Bonn happens to coincide with the 35th anniversary of Secretary George Marshall's speech at Harvard in June, 1947 which launched the Marshall Plan. The contrasts are significant.
The Marshall initiative and the measures that followed were prompted by European stagnation and growing concern about Soviet aims. Together, able leaders reshaped the outlook and policies of the United States and Western Europe for the postwar period. The framework for economic relations and security developed then has endured till now despite three decades of radical change in world conditions.
Yet the alliance is under grave strain. Of course, stresses have been endemic and have been surmounted; but never before have the allies confronted so many at the same time.
* The economic recession is far more severe than earlier ones. Inevitably it heightens the claims of domestic interests and politics, making cooperation and compromise harder. Moreover, there is conflict over economic policy: the Europeans blame high US interest rates, and their distorting effects on money flows and exchange rates, for impeding their own recovery. They urge a more balanced US mix of fiscal and monetary policy.
* Defense strategy and arms control. The Soviet buildup and the antinuclear movements have reopened the strategic debate in NATO. About how much to rely on nuclear weapons. About countering Soviet theater nuclear weapons. About impr/ving conventional defense and burden sharing. About how to safeguard the Gulf oil region. And about the urgency and objectives of arms control.
* East-West relations and detente. The Europeans want to maintain trade links with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and the Germans especially to preserve European detente, in spite of Soviet activities elsewhere. The US sees trade and credits as potential levers. The Siberian pipeline has been a special bone of contention. More generally, how should the West cope with Soviet activities outside Europe?
Indeed the cleavages are not only transatlantic. They are also divisive within each of the members, including the US. Reagan's economic and budget policy is under heavy attack at home; so are aspects of his defense program and his delays on arms control.
Can a workable consensus be recreated among the allies? The danger is not that the alliance will dramatically disintegrate. Its foundations are still intact. The allies virtually take for granted interdependence of their economies and their security. In general terms, they want the same things. The grave danger is that their failure to concert will prevent effective responses to their problems.
In part, divergencies are due to the novelty of the conditions and the problems. Economists are deeply split in their diagnoses and prescriptions. A Soviet Union with vast military power, with a troubled economy and empire and an impending succession, is an uncertain adversary; assessing how to influence its actions and priorities is even more baffling than normal. And in the third world , steadily becoming more diverse, it is hard to be confident about how to encourage orderly change.
By comparison, in the Marshall Plan period, it seemed easier to diagnose the problems and identify what needed to be done for recovery and for security. For that the experience of the 1930s provided a basis for consensus. Then the challenge was mainly to generate support for the necessary actions and carry them out. The remarkable success of that period depended heavily on the caliber of the political leadership--with men like Truman, Marshall, Acheson, and many others in the executive branch, Congress, and public life working with comparable leaders abroad.
Today, much of our difficulty lies in the lack of such political leadership. European leaders have often had a divided or weak political base and have not achieved the political cohesion to which they have aspired. They recognize the continuing need for US leadership. Yet for over a decade, the US has not been able to provide a clear lead. The causes have been many: the character of presidents and their associates, the fragmentation of Congress, the legacy of Vietnam, etc. But the result has been that Europeans have more and more come to question the ability of the US to handle its own affairs or to play the role of managing partner in the alliance. During the President's trip, the question uppermost for the Europeans will be whether Mr. Reagan is or is not capable of developing and directing a balanced and coherent policy.
A few days of summiting obviously can not resolve all our complex problems. But they should create a greater sense of joint responsibility of the political leaders and a better sense of direction and could nudge the various alliance agencies toward more effective cooperation.