President Bush will be first among equals when the Group of Seven summit convenes tomorrow, but he will be less first and more equal than ever before. His plight as leader of a somewhat diminished superpower cannot compare, of course, with Mikhail S. Gorbachev's problems as president of a collapsing Soviet Union. But the fact that Mr. Gorbachev has wangled an invitation to London in quest of Western assistance, and the U.S. is far less able to provide it than Germany and Japan, shows how the world power equation is changing.
This annual meeting of the top seven industrial democracies is assuming a significance that is dwarfing the bilateral American-Soviet summits of yore. Even if Mr. Bush and Mr. Gorbachev can arrange to get together in Moscow later this summer to sign a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), the issue on the table in London is of more pressing importance.
During the frigid days of the Cold War, the great democracies worried chiefly about Soviet military strength. Their collective foreign policy was transfixed with the need to contain an expansionist power that had forced Eastern Europe under its thumb and threatened inroads elsewhere. Because the United States was the only nuclear counterweight to this menace and at the time was an unchallenged economic powerhouse, it was the acknowledged leader of the democratic world. So much so that Moscow repeatedly sought to enhance its own prestige by trying to equate itself with the United States.
Today the world's great democracies are chiefly concerned about Soviet weakness. There is a fear that as the central government in Moscow implodes, perhaps even losing control of its nuclear arsenals, vast regions of the Soviet empire and Eastern Europe could be destabilized. Note how the European nations, not the superpowers, rushed into Yugoslavia. Europe's fear is that the long Cold War peace imposed by the American-Soviet duopoly could give way not to the "new world order" invoked by Mr. Bush but to new world disorder.
Because this dangerous Soviet weakness is Topic A on the world diplomatic agenda, it is no wonder that Mr. Gorbachev's post-summit appearance is completely dominating the London scene. He has vowed he will not get "down on my knees" to plead for assistance, an extraordinary thought for the heir of Lenin and Stalin to entertain. Instead, he is expected to offer an economic reform plan designed to convince the United States, Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Japan and Canada that after much zigging and zagging he really intends to transform his country from a command to a market economy.
Mr. Bush is making politely helpful noises, but his administration is torn between advocates of a "Grand Bargain" to bail out the Soviet Union and those who consider the whole idea a "Grand Illusion." Yet if there is to be a "Grand Bargain" eventually, it will be financed not by the United States (the world's largest debtor country) but by Germany once it absorbs its eastern provinces and by Japan once it gets back its northern islands.
Germany and Japan are the nations with accumulations of capital, with positive trade balances, with competitive industry, with economic wherewithal. They are also nations that have to live very close to the Soviet Union, a propinquity that stirs fears of Soviet upheaval and hopes of access to huge resources and markets. German capital flow to the Soviet Union is already 10 times that of the United States. While the U.S. is the only military superpower left, as evidenced by its victory in the gulf war, Mr. Gorbachev must know that financial clout and momentum lie with Germany and Japan.
It is this circumstance that will make Mr. Bush less first and more equal in London. His task will not be to resist the new constellation of power but to accommodate to it. If other nations relieve the United States of some of its global burdens, including major support for the Soviet Union, this country will be better positioned to look after its own economic and social imperatives.