If Anyone Leads in Europe, It Will Be the U.S.


November 23, 1992|By WILLIAM PFAFF

MARBELLA, SPAIN. — Marbella, Spain -- There is a useful distinction to be drawn between good problems, those which come up in the course of any constructive enterprise, and bad problems, the destructive ones.

The biennial Atlantic Conference held this year in Marbella provided evidence that the Western countries are spending their time on the good problems, and doing their best to dodge the bad ones, which need the most effort. The conference has been sponsored by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations since 1970 as a private forum for discussion between North and South Americans and Europeans.

The Americans and Europeans really do not have much to divide them today, as this meeting demonstrated, even if there are plenty of irritants in trans-Atlantic relations. Only one truly serious problem exists, trade protectionism. The GATT crisis, which has come to a head in the past few days, does carry a risk of breakdown in world trade cooperation, capable of producing protectionist blocs in the Americas, Europe and Japan-dominated East Asia. However, France's indication that it will not veto a European Community agricultural agreement with the United States means that the Uruguay Round of tariff reductions probably will go forward.

However, this kind of agreement between the high-efficiency food producers of North America and northern Europe is at the expense of food self-sufficiency in parts of the Third World, and damages Eastern Europe as well, which has agricultural products as well as low-technology manufactures to sell, and not much else. The Atlantic countries solve their good problems by creating bad problems for people whose troubles already are bad enough.

The EC's steel producers have just won an 18-month campaign to halt alleged East European dumping (selling at less than cost) of seamless steel tubing. Seamless steel tubing does not weigh heavily on my mind, nor is it likely to do so for most of my readers, but for Mannesmann of Germany, British Steel, etc., East European competition has meant, according to the European Commission, 18,000 lost jobs during the past six years.

Basic steel products are among the limited number of things Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Croatia -- the countries accused of dumping -- can competitively produce for Western markets. It is exactly in these areas that the European Community has put up barriers, and where industry and farm groups want the barriers even higher. The main Western steel producers today are demanding further measures to block allegedly subsidized East European exports.

Eighteen thousand jobs are important, clearly. But so is East European survival, as the ex-Communist countries make their immensely demanding effort to install rational economics and modern industry amid the political and moral -- as well as economic -- wreckage of communism. The West urges them on, but in practice insists that nothing they do inconvenience politically influential Western special interests.

Here is where the absence of Western leadership is distressingly evident, just as in the Yugoslav crisis. The ex-Communist countries want desperately to join ''Europe.'' I write the word in quotation marks because they want not simply to join the institutions of the European Community but to unite themselves with a civilization from which they have been excluded for 47 years. Romania's first post-Communist Minister of Culture, Andrei Plesu, has called ''Europe'' ''a dream, a utopia'' for people in his region. They fear now that it was only a dream, and that the West does not want them.

Unwelcomed by the West, or rhetorically welcomed but in practical matters rejected, these peoples will be driven to look after themselves selfishly and ruthlessly. The forces of national self-absorption, ethnic exclusion and national aggrandizement will mount in influence, as they already have in Serbia.

Moreover, destructive forces of this kind will be exported. They will influence the West as they become dominant in the East. Germany already has a domestic political crisis on its hands because of the xenophobia and racism provoked by the enormous tide of refugees fleeing poverty in the East and war in Yugoslavia. The European Community quarrels over what to do about these refugees. Germany accepts more of them in any two-week period than Britain has accepted in the past year, and this is bitterly resented. Germany also has furnished 80 percent of Western aid to the ex-Communist countries -- while the United States offers much advice, more often ideological than practical, and little money.

It is evident today, however, that if the United States does not lead, no one does. The Europeans now ruefully, even bitterly, admit this. It is crucial that the new Clinton administration assume a responsibility in this matter that the Bush administration refused.

Mr. Clinton's priorities necessarily are domestic. He has to prove before the end of 1993 that he can change the American economy for the better, or his government will be in serious trouble. He was elected for that -- not to solve the problems of Eastern and Western Europe. Can he do what he was elected to do, and at the same time do what enlightened self-interest says must be done in Europe? I am not sure that the answer will prove to be ''yes.'' But if the answer is ''no,'' the consequences will be accountable first of all to the West Europeans' failure of vision and will.

8, William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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