Zero-sum partnership: When one ally wins, another loses

February 20, 1997|By William Pfaff

LONDON -- The relation of the United States to its allies was for many years a ''win-win'' affair, as the games theorists call it. The U.S. offered security, investment and trade, and received enhancement of its own security plus considerable economic advantage.

The allies benefited most during the early postwar reconstruction years, and could complain only (as did France) that they were taken for granted politically. Yet their political eclipse was, for most of them, the outcome of wartime defeat, and in Britain's case a result of the Suez fiasco and withdrawal from Empire -- self-inflicted defeats.

Now the allied relationship is a great deal more complicated. There are elements in it, to stick with the games analogy, of the zero-sum game. One player loses when another gains. It is considered correct to cast a certain ideological veil over this, particularly where economics is concerned -- competition and trade being held to produce ultimate good for losers as well as for winners.

It is not so simple as that. Losses are resented and resisted, with political consequences. Take aircraft. Boeing has just bought McDonnell Douglas. In November the latter company was ruled out of the competition for what is supposed to become an enormous Pentagon contract to build a new-generation all-service fighter-bomber, the JSF, or Joint Strike Fighter. That decision by the U.S. government seemed to rule out a future for McDD as a major military-aircraft producer, and the Pentagon oversaw the subsequent takeover by Boeing.

However it was Airbus, the European airliner consortium, that really knocked McDonnell Douglas out of business as an independent company. The Douglas part of McDD was once the world's dominant manufacturer of passenger planes (the DC-3 to DC-7 series). It lost first place when Boeing converted the Air Force KC-135/137 jet tanker into the first successful commercial jet airliner, the Boeing 707. Boeing then went on to become the world's leader in the field.

But Douglas, become McDD, remained a player, producing successful commercial jets as well as the military aircraft which became the company's main product. It was looking for new commercial jet orders as late as last year. Lockheed was also for many years a competitor in making commercial jets, with its TriStars, but now is out of the business. Both companies are out because of Airbus.

Airbus started out with the ambition to claim a quarter to a third of the world's big-jet market, alongside the three American producers. It now aims at half the world market.

The JSF, the latest American fighter project, has years of prototype competition between Lockheed and Boeing ahead before the Pentagon makes a final choice. Then Congress has to come up with production funding, which is likely to be a controversial affair, after unhappy recent experiences with the cost of the B-2 ''stealth'' bomber, and with the delayed F-22 fighter, jointly manufactured by Boeing and Lockheed-Martin.

The F-22 was supposed to have begun production two years ago. The Brussels aerospace newsletter Context says that initial deliveries of the F-22 now are not expected until 2002-2003, at more than three times the original projected cost.

The American fighter aircraft on the world market today all are versions of planes developed in the 1960s. The F-15 flew first in 1969, and both the F-16 and the prototype from which the F-18 was derived in 1973.

In Europe, the troubled British-German-Italian Eurofighter program is at last on the verge of firm production orders from Bonn and London, and the French Dassault Rafale is already in pre-production.

Both are new-technology, aerodynamically ''unstable'' fly-by-wire aircraft. The United States will not have a fully competitive aircraft on the market until well into the 21st century. In short, the U.S. has fallen a generation behind its allies in fighters actually produced.

One of the early contributing factors to the program for NATO expansion was arms-industry interest in furnishing ''force modernization'' equipment to new NATO members. These countries were expected to buy NATO-proven and NATO-standard combat aircraft -- i.e., American aircraft. However, the governments concerned have proved very resistant to the sales offers made to them, arguing that they have more urgent demands on their money, and also to keep pressure on the U.S. to speed their alliance entry.

All of this illustrates the new complexity of trans-Atlantic alliance relations. An equivalent complexity is developing in Asia, centered on the financial and commercial trade-offs implicit in the continuing American strategic deployment in the region.

Commercial rivalries in the alliance are themselves politically complicated by prospective Chinese and North Korean succession crises, the developing brutality of the Hong Kong takeover, China's arrogant maneuvers to manipulate Clinton-administration policies, and the issue of ''Asian values'' versus Western human-rights and labor-standards demands.

There now are winners and losers in these alliances -- or wins and losses. Governments more than ever are under pressure to frame security policy in terms of the commercial interests of powerful industries. National interest, as politically defined, may -- indeed sometimes must -- conflict with commercial interest.

Managing such a situation requires a more discriminating view of the national interest than is usually expressed by politicians or press. Lacking that, America's Atlantic and Pacific alliances could both develop cracks. That should be understood now, in all the alliance capitals, rather than discovered later -- or too late.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 2/20/97

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