AT TOKYO, the leaders of the seven industrial nations met roughly half of their responsibility concerning oil. They made progress toward forging an alliance on oil and took the essential step of pledging to hold their oil imports to firm and explicit limits through 1985. So far, so good. But, unhappily, the seven couldn't bring themselves to do anything that will make any immediate difference in an oil market that is overstrained and out of control. The leaders did not apparently feel themselves strong enough at home to tell their people that, for their own safety and the world's, they would have to do with a little less oil this summmer and end the superheated bidding among the buyers.
The import limits establish an important principle. But the seven have set their limits a little higher than their actual imports last year. Since there is not enough oil being produced in the world today to meet their present dangerous tensions among buyers and sellers.
Over the coming summer, in fact, the limits may actually make things worse. all of these countries will now begin to struggle desperately to get their imports up to the ceilings. That will increase the temptation to try to grab at each others' supplies -- the kind of destructive competition that the import limits, and whe whole Tokyo conference, were designed to end.
In defense of the seven at Toyko, it has to be acknowledged that actually cutting imports, or even pledging to hold them at present levels, would be difficult and painful. You can imagine the reaction if President Carter were to come home announcing that the gasoline lines would have to get a little longer for a while. Things are not much different in Western Europe. It can be argued that the import limits are worth having even if they take hold only next year.
But the months immediately ahead are going to be crucial. Several more months of unrestrained competition for scare oil among these seven countries, threaten serious political friction among them, not to mention further wild increase in oil prices. No doubt it is difficult to call on citizens to cut back. But these seven countries have been brought to their present posture by the reluctance of a succession of presidents and prime ministers, here and aboard, to call on their people to make difficult choices.
Beyond the specifics of the oil arrangements, the atmosphere of the Tokyo meeting was not entirely reassuring. Each of the seven was there as a negotiator, narrowly protecting one interest. None seems to have been notably forthcoming or farsighted. The need for a close and generous alliance among these seven is greater now than at any time since the postwar years. But the Tokyo meeting failed to demonstrate whether they are capable of it.