Shoot-Out In Houston

George Bush called last week's gathering in Houston the first economic summit of the post-cold-war period, "a celebration of victory over barbed wire concrete walls and discredited despotism." But the sense of common military purpose that had been achieved at a NATO summit one week earlier escaped the seven major industrial democracies at their annual economic gathering Houston was more a shoot-out than a peace parley. Each major power felt free to pursue its own interests no matter what the others thought. The frightening implication is that when--and if--the Soviet Union finally does disband its still mighty military, the last glue in the Western Alliance will dissolve and the West will fall into nakedly competing regional blocs--America, Europe and Asia.

There was one genuine meeting of minds at the Houston summit that partially redeems this bleak outlook. That was a possible deal on trade. The so-called Uruguay Round of trade liberalization talks has been stymied for months by Europe's refusal to negotiate reductions of agricultural subsidies for farmers. The Uruguay Round is an effort to extend the free-trading rules that now govern merchandise to areas like patent rights, computer and financial services--and farm products. Agriculture is the linchpin. The United States, Canada, Australia and 40 Third World agricultural producers could reduce their trade deficits substantially if European countries cut their subsidies. But if Europe refuses, the producers" interest in an overall trade agreement vanishes--and with it a chance to prevent a free-for-all among European, Western Hemisphere and Far Eastern trading blocs.

The deal was struck after Helmut Kohl of West Germany, the acknowledged leader of the European bloc, switched to the U.S. position and dragged Europe with him. The communique ordered negotiators to start bargaining on a basis satisfactory to the United States and other farm producers.

Beyond the trade issue, disarray reigned at the summit. On the question of economic aid to the Soviets, the summiteers couldn't reach a consensus, so they let each country do what it wanted. That wasn't surprising, considering that Germany and France already were giving aid to the Soviets. The Seven countries then agreed to study under what conditions aid to the Soviets might be useful. But even this study will run parallel to a rival, exclusively European study.

Environmental issues didn't fare much better. A German effort to obtain a 25 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions the chief culprit in the "greenhouse effect," died in the face of U.S. and Japanese opposition. The summit wound up embracing only two ideas--reducing forest destruction in Brazil and encouraging tree planting everywhere. This triggered renewed charges from environmental groups that Bush was lax in protecting global resources.

At the end, the heads of state tried to paper over differences with friendly communiques. Bush acknowledged the differences were great but not enough, he said, to break up the strong alliance. Maybe so, but the summit made it clear that self-interest was pulling the countries apart. The question now is, how much longer can mere paper hold them together?