The Versailles heads-of-government economic summit, eighth in the series, produced a compromise with few hard decisions, certainly far short of President Reagan's prediction that it would have "historic" results. But if the summit declaration was not earth-shaking, it embarrassed no one, and the summit process remains very much alive for the ninth meeting to be held in Pebble Beach, Calif., next year.
The seven heads of government, along with the incoming and outgoing presidents of the European Common Market, after grappling with the major economic problems, swept them under the rug by the creation of no less than six working committees or study groups to report back to future meetings.
"Summits," as one German official had observed, "are not allowed to be outright failures."
In contrast to the Ottawa meeting last year where the new American president over-awed and out-maneuvered his fellow heads of government, Reagan was subdued at Versailles. His image tarnished by a recession at home and the failure of his economic program to match the glittering promise of the year before, Reagan kept a low public profile at Versailles.
Reagan's only press appearance was a silent one as part of the supporting cast for President Francois Mitterrand as the French host delivered a solo summary of the final declaration. All of the other leaders then held press conferences of their own, while Reagan contented himself with a written statement labeling the summit a success.
Reagan was unlucky at Versailles, in the sense that the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, as well as a messy controversy between Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. and Jeanne Kirkpatrick, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, were headline news, detracting from Reagan's effort to restore the image of American leadership.
But no summit leader stole the show, or registered a ringing success of any kind. In the midst of the summit, West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's party lost a crucial by-election. Japanese Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki was content to make no waves. Thatcher was pre-occupied with the Falklands war.
If there was an outstanding personal success, it was--in the view of many Europeans--scored by Treasury Secretary Donald Regan, who went a long way to accommodate Europe's insistence on a greater coordination of economic policy. Regan even told reporters on leaving Versailles that he would keep an "open mind" on the wisdom of intervening in the exchange markets, a put-down of his own undersecretary, Beryl Sprinkel, who has irritated Europeans by what they saw as Sprinkel's unbending views on the subject.
"The U.S. has adopted a different philosophy," said German Finance Minister Manfred Lahnstein. "You can expect a greater U.S. readiness to intervene. Don Regan has shown a great deal of understanding." The secretary's success is all the more impressive in light of the fact that for his first year in office, he gave international financial affairs only second priority to domestic problems, much to the annoyance of his European opposite numbers.
Regan also scored points with the traveling U.S. press corps with meaty and seemingly candid briefings, punctuated with a sense of humor. Regan's and Haig's press conferences proved a magnet not only for American reporters, but for the entire international press corps that inundated the tiny U.S. briefing room.
The Versailles summit may have been, as Assistant Secretary of State Robert Hormats said beforehand, the most complex of the series so far. It took place against the backdrop of near-stagnation in the Western industrial states, which had grown less than 1 percent in real terms in the past year. That meant, especially in Europe, record and rising levels of unemployment.
International trade had suffered a decline for the first time since 1958, giving rise to protectionism in varying forms--open and subtle. Bitter feelings between the United States and Europe on the question of what the United States claims to be steel dumping here by European countries is yet to be resolved.
Inasmuch as the economic malaise is in large part blamed--rightly or wrongly--on the high interest rates in the United States, the Versailles summit shaped up as a fencing contest on broad issues between the United States and its six partners. And on trade problems, the summit threatened to become a shouting match between Japan and its six partners, whose markets the Nipponese exporting genius had deeply penetrated.
In the sense that the Versailles summit was an American vs. The Other Six conference, each side could claim at the end that it had successfully resisted making key concessions it knew the other side would demand.
Although in the privacy of their head-to-head meetings the other leaders complained bitterly to Reagan about high interest rates and their impact on the economies of the poor, as well as rich, nations, the summit declaration pledged only to "pursue prudent monetary policies and achieve greater control of budgetary deficits." It paid lip service to the triple goals of reducing inflation, boosting economic growth, and creating more jobs. The United States managed to avoid censure on interest rates while the Europeans succeeded in getting language in the declaration noting that each nation must be "sensitive" to the effects of its policies on others. This amounted to a slight rap on U.S. knuckles.
On monetary matters, the United States successfully resisted strong pressure, especially from the French, for a commitment to intervene more broadly in the foreign exchange market. There will be a study of intervention conducted by the five major countries with the assistance of the International Monetary Fund. But the United States also agreed to "work towards a constructive and orderly evolution of the international monetary system," which Secretary Regan said is a commitment to work "towards a more stable" exchange rate relationship--hence, a concession to the European point of view.
In the area of East-West trade, the United States failed in its determination to force a reduction in Europe's trade volume with the Soviet bloc, primarily by persuading Europe to charge market, rather than subsidized, interest rates on loans to the bloc. The United States settled for the vaguest kind of language calling for "commercial prudence" in limiting loans to the Soviet bloc, instead of the 12.25 percent minimum interest rate it had sought. The obscure phrasing in this section, said Regan, "is a work of art." The United States insists it will be willing to play "hardball" to dissuade Western European governments from too generous an export-credit policy, by playing "the Polish card" if necessary. That means letting Poland slide into default, with a resulting crescendo among heavily exposed West German banks.
On North-South negotiations, the United States, faced with the insistent demands by host President Francois Mitterrand of France, agreed that "global negotiations" could start in the United Nations, provided that radical Third World nations did not try to weaken the World Bank and the IMF. A working document, not in the declaration, assures that all seven summit nations will support the independence of the bank and IMF, as demanded by the United States, when the issue comes up in the U.N.
Supplementing the obligatory language condemning protectionism that has appeared in all prior summit communiques, the declaration pledged to make progress at the GATT ministerial meeting later this year, and approved the U.S. initiative (in very broad language) to study increased private capital flows and private investment.
On technology, France did not push for an explicit endorsement of Mitterrand's proposal to harness the benefits of technological advance for jobs, and Reagan intervened to assure his colleagues that the private sector could handle the job. But despite Reagan's counterproposal to let nature take its course, with no special attention to these topics, technology now is sure to become a regular agenda item for summits.
In effect, then, the United States and Europe were able to hold firm on issues each side held crucial--but in all cases used language loose enough to support differing interpretations.
The sense of a stand-off was also underlined by the fact that Japan, by announcing in advance of the summit a new series of liberalized import restrictions, had defused that issue for the moment, although skepticism remains on whether the Japanese steps will reduce their surpluses with the West.
"The Japanese feel they made an effort," said Sir Roy Denman of the European Community. But he added that in Europe's view, Japan had not yet made "a fundamental change in its orientation" that would encourage as high a percentage of industrial imports as is common in the other summit nations. That is the American view as well, but Reagan let the Europeans carry the ball on this point at the summit sessions.
The committees set up by the summit, all of which will be managed by the finance ministers or their deputies, are:
* To study whether intervention in exchange markets really works.
* To monitor, within the OECD, the level of export credits to the Soviet bloc.
* To study, in conjunction with the OECD, President Mitterrand's proposal on exploiting new technologies to create job opportunities.
* To cooperate with the International Monetary Fund in the surveillance, on a multilateral basis, of the workings of the U.S., West German, British, French and Japanese economies.