With literally the entire world groping for the way to economic growth and stability, the seven-nation summit conference at Williamsburg, Virginia this coming weekend takes on singular importance. The question is whether the conference will simply turn into another splashy extravaganza - with preplanned agenda and prewritten communiques - or whether the seven heads of states and governments will find time beyond the formalities and fanfare of the occasion for thoughtful, quiet, constructive discussion. Cynicism should not obscure the possibility of the latter.
It is true that these summit meetings - and this is now the ninth - have a tendency to take on the air of a carnival. There are more journalists on hand than participants, which puts strong temptation before the leaders to play to the galleries and exploit the occasion for domestic political purposes. Yet from the time the conferences began, they have usually succeeded in producing something of value, something that has contributed to that spirit of cooperation and mutual understanding so urgently needed in the management of global problems.
For example, as a result of the the first meeting at Rambouillet in November 1975 and a follow-up meeting of finance ministers, new ground rules were established for international finance following the breakdown of the postwar world monetary system. Other conferences produced less, perhaps, but at least helped foster dialogue and a degree of consensus.
This is not to minimize some sharp disagreements among the seven industrialized countries (Britain, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, West Germany, and the United States) or the danger of divisiveness at Williamsburg. The last economic conference in Versailles split over Washington's hard line on trade and credits for the Soviet-bloc countries as well as over the issue of currency intervention to stabilize international exchange rates.
This time France is expected to inject sparks into the meeting by calling for a complete overhaul of the world financial system and a return to fixed foreign exchange rates. President Mitterrand, struggling to stabilize the weak French economy and the franc, blames his troubles on high US interest rates and the strong dollar. The US resists such an approach and continues to favor less government stimulus to growth as well as a tightening of controls over trade with the Soviet Union. Japan and others, for their part, see high American interest rates and huge budget deficits as the obstacle to a sturdier world recovery.
One conference cannot resolve all the national concerns of the participants or fully address the many long-range problems facing them. The leaders can, however, agree on the fundamentals of nurturing the incipient world recovery: steady economic growth in each country without reigniting inflation; a further relaxation of trade rules and avoidance of a new wave of protectionism; proper financing of third-world debt; continuing development aid for the poorer nations. Within this broad framework there will be debate and argument as to means and methods, perhaps even sharp clashes. But the leaders have a responsibility to cut through their disagreements, to subordinate their nationalistic impulses, and to map a joint strategy for the common - the global - good.
This can best be done if the seven leaders find a secluded corner in Williamsburg and talk heart to heart, outside the glare of cameras and the inhibiting trappings of official meetings. Then they may indeed find their common voice.