President Reagan is in Western Europe this week, trying to promote United States exports and preach Western solidarity. But what he might learn could be more important than what he is trying to sell.
He arrived in Bonn from a White House which is obsessed with fear of a rising tide of communism threatening to engulf the hemisphere and already lapping at the banks of the Rio Grande. Both Mr. Reagan himself and his vice-president, George Bush, talk that way.
And act that way. This past week they sacked their State Department expert on Latin America, Langhorne A. Motley, who believes in negotiating with the government of Nicaragua, and replaced him with Elliott Abrams, a political neoconservative who favors former UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick's hard line on Central America. Mr. Abrams is to execute a policy of economic sanctions against Nicaragua.
An overnight flight carried Reagan this week from an atmosphere dominated by a fear of a rising tide of communism to a Western Europe where communism is recessive and democracy triumphant.
This is an appropriate moment to notice what 40 years have done to and in Western Europe.
When the victorious Allies of 1945 swept up the Italian peninsula, broke across the Rhine, and ended the Nazi tyranny in Germany, Soviet influence and communist ideology were also on the rise. Many in the West thought of communism as the wave of the future. Many assumed that democracy as a form of government was an outworn idea whose time had passed.
Those anxieties have been dispelled.
Reagan is visiting both Spain and Portugal on this trip. Forty years ago Spain and Portugal were fascist dictatorships. A US president would not have been able to visit either one. Today both are sturdy democracies. And that has opened the way for them to become members of the NATO alliance, and prospective members of the European Community.
Forty years ago, communist parties were powerful and gaining strength in both Italy and France. Today the French Communist Party has shrunk to a small minority status. And all of West Europe's communist parties are weakened by inner divisions over attitude toward Moscow. No country in Western Europe is today in danger of losing its liberty to communism.
Forty years ago, those who believed in democracy watched in bitter helplessness as Moscow fastened communist regimes of its selection upon the peoples of Eastern Europe. Today all, except possibly for Bulgaria, would embrace democracy and economic ties with the West were they free to do so. Their preference has been proved by a series of protest movements and even of armed uprisings against the tyrannies which Moscow imposes on them by force of arms.
If there is any rising tide today, it is a rising tide of preference for democracy in politics and a free marketplace in economics. Even China, to the horror of communist countries, is experimenting with revival of marketplace economies. The ideas of Adam Smith are again bold and radical. Adam Smith is on the ascendant. Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes are both recessive.
The change in Europe has come so gradually that not everyone realizes the extent and decisiveness of the change. One simple fact about the new Europe is that it is more nearly unified today than at any time since the reign of the Emperor Charlemagne (AD 800 to 814).
True, it is not the total and complete unity which American diplomacy proposed and tried to promote in the aftermath of World War II. Reagan is visiting Strasbourg and will speak to the members of the European Parliament. It is not a true parliament. In effect, it passes pious resolutions. It cannot legislate. But it is an institution that might someday be strengthened and given power.
Progress toward European unity has gone further in the economic than in the political sphere. The European Community has unresolved problems. It generates too much milk, butter, and wine. Like the US Congress, it subsidizes the vocal politicals at the expense of the consumers. But it works.
The essential fact is that the Western Europe of today is entirely democratic for the first time in history and has achieved a level of economic prosperity that is the envy of most of the world. If it has not achieved full political unity, it has gone so far that the idea of another great war between any two of its major members has become unthinkable.
The historic rivalries between England and France, between Spain and England, between France and Germany -- those rivalries that plunged the whole world into two world wars -- all belong to history.
The Europe of today is an economic community. Its citizens travel freely throughout the community. Their goods and their currencies move freely within the community. And all of them enjoy the ability to get rid of any government they dislike at the ballot box in free and honest elections.
The question of course is whether Reagan will be so busy promoting his own projects that he may not have time to absorb something of the marvelous fact that in Western Europe, communism and Soviet influence are out of date. He could enjoy nine days of release from Washington's favorite paranoia about a rising tide of communism.