At first blush it may seem strange, but some influential American businessmen are on the same side as European politicians when it comes to the delicate issue of trading with the Soviet bloc. They think that the Reagan administration is being shortsighted when it pushes Europe to sever ties with the Russians and Russian satellite states.
Banker Robert V. Roosa and others, in a report for the powerful Trilateral Commission, in effect warn the Reagan administration that cutting the Russian bloc off from trade with the West will be counterproductive. "Establishment" spokesmen like Roosa appear to worry that having restrained his hawkish anti-Soviet rhetoric, in a new willingness to talk with the Russians on strategic arms limitations, Reagan is substituting economic warfare for the other kind.
In summary, their view is that the West must recognize that it cannot quarantine the East or prevent its economic growth. Rather, they feel that cautiously improved trade relations can help reduce military and political tensions. And--not to be ignored--they know that improved relations can be a source of good business.
Reagan's worry, nonetheless, is that if Europe makes a heavy commitment to building Soviet gas pipelines, and becomes dependent on that source of energy, the Soviets may gain an important kind of "leverage" on the West's political decision-making process.
The answer, given by both the American businessmen and the Europeans, is that neither side is likely to risk extreme vulnerability. The Russians, after all, if they become too dependent on the hard currency earned from gas sales, could abruptly be cut off in a real political crisis.
Nonetheless, Reagan is extremely nervous about East-West trade. His advisers think it is more likely that Europe will get "hooked" on Soviet gas than the Soviets are likely to get "hooked" on the hard cash involved. Above all, the Washington team showed its displeasure here with France's willingness to subsidize credits to the Soviet Union.
It's not just a partisan issue--Reagan has some Democratic support on this one. For example, Richard Cooper, undersecretary of State for economic affairs in the Carter administration, said the other day: "It is absurd for European taxpayers to subsidize the Soviet Union for the purpose of stimulating demand."
The Europeans at the summit session did not see it Reagan's way. They argued that a moderate expansion of trade does not add significantly to either the economic or military potential of the East. No one pushed for the sale of sophisticated hardware. They contended that the American position is inconsistent, in that the United States objects to selling equipment that will get the Soviet gas pipeline going, but is perfectly willing to take cash from the Russians for boosted sales of American wheat.
Basically, there could be no real agreement at Versailles on the East-West trade issue because of opposition to the American argument--for different reasons--from the Germans and the French.
The Germans, philosophically, believe it is important to preserve and extend all possible relationships with the Soviet Union. "Ostpolitik" is still the guiding principle for West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt.
For France, it is something else: This country is heavily dependent on its export trade to the Eastern bloc and the Third World and this trade is increasing markedly. "We're getting deeply into economic troubles," says a highly regarded private-sector French economist, "and there is no way in which President Francois Mitterrand is going to make it more difficult for France to build up its exports."
But it is also true that much of this trade has been supported by bank credits--to both the East and Southern blocs--that have been too liberal. The Polish crisis and the need to reschedule loans to Rumania are ample evidence of this.
Arthur F. Burns, the astute U.S. ambassador to Bonn, reportedly has said of the big multinational banks: "They have behaved like fools." But the banks have been encouraged by Western governments to act in this way, in part because both bankers and Western politicians mistakenly believed there would be a protective "Soviet umbrella." Says one key French government official wryly: "It's true that despite our vision of an East-West dialogue, the problem today is how to deal with this indebtedness."