'Fortress America,' revisited

Great is the resentment in Washington over the fact that the West European allies failed to rally enthusiastically behind the recent US invasion of Grenada. (At the White House the word intervention is preferred to invasion).

As always when the NATO allies find themselves in disagreement over the actions of one or another, there is talk of a possible breaking up of the alliance.

And, as always, when it is the others who disappoint those in the White House in Washington, there is to be heard the sound of an old refrain.

It harps upon the ingratitude of the overseas allies. It argues that the protection of the allies is an unrequited burden. It concludes that it is time for the US to pull its troops out of Europe or Korea and Japan and let the ungrateful allies take care of their own defense.

It is the old, old ''Fortress America'' song that those of us whose memories go back to World War I and its aftermath have heard many a time and know by heart.

Syndicated columnist William Safire voiced it the other day in its latest form. ''The time is coming,'' he said, ''for an independent European defense, with the US offering for sale the latest intermediate missiles but not the rental of our troops. . . . As Western Europeans turn inward, the US should wish them well and look to its own vital interests.''

Another version was to be found on the editorial page of last week's issue of U.S. News & World Report. Editor Marvin Stone took the Japanese to task for their omissions (in Mr. Stone's eyes) - and President Reagan even more severely to task for having failed on his recent trip to Japan to speak firmly to the Japanese about said omissions.

There are two flaws in this latest revival of the old concept of American isolationism.

One is that Japan and the European allies simply cannot afford to acquire the physical means to defend themselves. If Washington were to act on Mr. Safire's advice, the result would be a Western Europe forced to negotiate a deal with the Soviets from a position of physical helplessness. It would mean handing them over to Moscow.

The other flaw is that such talk overlooks what the world of today is all about.

We are living in a special time frame without precedents in modern times. There are only two truly great powers in the world: the US and the USSR. Perhaps someday there will be others of equal power. Western Europeans could, at least in theory, unite and again become a dominant force in the world. China might arise as another great power.

But neither of those possibilities is on the immediate horizon. For, as far as anyone today can see, there will continue to be just two powers far greater than any one other.

So long as that condition prevails, there will be rivalry between those two for influence throughout the rest of the world.

At present the United States has a decisive advantage over the Soviets in allies, associates, and friends. The whole of Western Europe prefers to associate with the US. All of Asia, with the single exception of Vietnam, prefers to be on the US side or, in the case of India, neutral. Most of Africa lives and trades in the Western community. The exceptions are Angola, Mozambique , and Ethiopia.

Actually, Angola, though a military client of the Soviets, does the bulk of its trade with the West.

All of Latin America, with the exceptions of only Cuba and Nicaragua, currently prefers to associate with the US or is neutral. In the Middle East, South Yemen is a Soviet client, and Syria is currently leaning heavily on the Soviets for military support against Israel.

If the US were to cut Western Europe lose and ''go it alone,'' the West Europeans would have no choice but to turn to Moscow and make the best deal they could. Others in Africa, Asia, and Latin America would follow.

So long as the US is at the political, military, and economic center of a greater association of nations than the Soviets can attract, the US is winning in the great rivalry with the Soviets. To be at the center of the larger and more prosperous association is the object of the game. Success or failure is measured by the recruits or the defections from one camp or the other.

For the US to cut lose deliberately from Western Europe, which is the second-most-productive area in the world - or from Japan, which is fourth - would be to hand the Soviets the greatest advantage it could even dream of obtaining. Sensible people don't do things like that.

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