No one in his senses can believe that we have a limitless period of time before us. We ought to bring matters to a head and make a final settlement. We ought not to go jogging along improvident, incompetent, waiting for something to turn up ...

Winston Churchill at Llandudno, Wales, Oct. 9, 1948

Observers, including myself, have been sounding the alarm for decades about this or that "crisis" in the Western Alliance. But today's, I am afraid, is more genuinely, objectively serious than ever.

It comes after decades of a relentless Soviet miliary buildup, when the West, for a decade, is edging in some areas toward a dangerous dependency on economic ties with the East; while in Poland the Soviet Union enforces the unity of its empire, its clients press on to undermine the security interests of the West from Southeast Asia to the Middle East to Africa to Central America. Not all our difficulties are caused by the Soviet Union, but the Soviet Union has shown little restraint in exploiting them, and their solution -- whatever their cause -- has been impeded by the lack of a unified Western response.

The issue before the allies now is not to assess blame but to face our future. An alliance at odds over central issues of East-West diplomacy, economic policy, the Middle East, Central America, Africa and relations with the Third World is in serious, and obvious, difficulty. Indeed it cannot be called an alliance if it agrees on no significant issue.

Sooner or later, such divisions must affect the field of security. For too long, all of us in the community of free nations have put off the uncomfortable questions; our evasions are now coming home to roost.

Thirty-five years ago, after the war, the democracies for a time overestimated the immediate dangers and underestimated their own capabilities; yet in the end they came up with a creative and effective response. Today, too, we may be underrating our own capacities and confusing long- and short-term dangers.

The strange aspect is that the disarray is taking place at the precise moment that the bankruptcy of the system that denies the human spirit seems to become clear beyond doubt. The Communist world has fundamental systemic problems and has not shown any ability to solve them except by recurrent brute force, which only delays the day of reckoning.

In the 65-year history of the Soviet state, it has never managed a legitimate, regular succession of its political leadership; the country faces the demographic time bomb of its growing non-Russian population, soon to be a majority. The system has failed to deal seriously with the desire for political participation of its intellectual and managerial elite. Or else it has sought to preempt their political aspirations by turning the ruling group into a careerist "new class" bound to produce stagnation if not corruption.

Its ideology is a discredited failure, without legitimacy, leaving the Communist Party a smug, privileged elite with no function in the society except its own self-perpetuation, struggling to deal with bottlenecks and crises which its own rigidity has caused. It is an historic joke that the ultimate crisis in every Communist state, latent if not evident, is over the role of the Communist Party.

Soviet economic performance is a disaster. It seems impossible to run a modern economy by a system of total planning, yet it seems impossible to maintain a Communist state without a system of total planning. How ironic that the West is tearing itself apart over how best to coordinate Western financial, technological and agricultural aid to a so-called "superpower" incapable of sustaining a modern economy.

In short, if Moscow is prevented by a coordinated Western policy from deflecting its internal tensions into international crises, it is likely to find only disillusionment in the boast that history is on its side.

It is the Communist world, not the West, that faces a profound systemic crisis. Ours are problems of coordination and policy, theirs are of structure. And therefore it is not beyond the realm of hope that a coherent, unified Western policy could at long last bring into view the prospect of a negotiated global settlement that Churchill foresaw at Llandudno.

The solutions to the West's problems are, to a significant degree, in our own hands.

One problem is that the democracies have no forum for addressing the future in a concrete way, let alone harmonizing disagreements or implementing common policies. As my friend Christopher Soames has recently emphasized, the Atlantic Alliance has no institutional machinery for addressing economic or Third World issues, or any long- term political strategy; the European Community, while eminently successful in its political coordination, has no mechanism as yet for formulating a coherent European view on matters of defense.

The economic summits of Western and Japanese leaders, begun in the mid-'70s, are an attempt to surmount this procedural impasse, but they can do little more than call key leaders' attention to key problems in an informal, unsystematic way. Procedures do not solve substantive problems. Nevertheless, creating an appropriate forum for broader and deeper consultation would be an important first step.

America has learned much in the postwar period, perhaps most of all from Britain. In the last decade we have also learned something of our limits, and in the new administration we have shaken off the trauma of perhaps excessive preoccupation with our limits. An America that has recovered its vitality and its faith in the future is as much in the interests of the West as a Europe shaping its identity.

Both Britain and America have learned that whatever their histories, their futures are part of the common destiny of freedom. Experience has taught that moral idealism and geopolitical insight are not alternatives but complementary; our civilization may not survive unless we possess both in full measure. Britain and America, which have contributed so much to the free world's unity and strength, have another opportunity now, together with our allies, to show that the democratic nations are the masters of their destiny.