The current "crisis" in relations between the United States and its European allies is not just like earlier versions of allied tension, because it grows out of a global economic crisis that is markedly worse than any of its predecessors in the post-war era.
At the source of what appear to be political strains are fundamentally economic questions like unemployment, interest rates, the price and availability of energy supplies and commodities. For example, the American-ordered cancellation of contracts to build a Soviet natural gas pipeline is vastly more aggravating than it might have been in Britain because it could mean thousands more people out of work here when there are already fewer people working than at any time since 1939. Not more unemployment since 1939, but absolutely fewer individuals going to a job and collecting wages. Given that dire situation, it is not surprising that the British are determined to challenge America's sanctions.
Britain, of course, has long been in economic difficulties. But the present crisis is ubiquitous. A socialist government like Francois Mitterand's in France is finding that its economic nostrums don't lead to economic recovery any more than Margaret Thatcher's or Ronald Reagan's conservative monetarism.
All over the world, the economic statistics, official pronouncements and headlines this summer are grim.
From Tokyo, the Financial Times reports that Japan's unemployment rate has reached the highest level in 26 years. While still low by Western standards, it is 8.7 percent higher than it was a year ago. Planned recruitments are dropping, the paper says, with automakers estimating 50 percent fewer new workers next year than this one.
Under the headline "Miracle's Over," The Economist reports from Bonn that the boom in West German export orders has collapsed, "industrial output and domestic demand are stagnant. . . . The Munich Economics Institute reckons that business confidence is at its lowest since 1975." West German unemployment figures for July announced this week were the highest since record keeping began in 1950.
Bad economic news in Britain is commonplace. But it sill comes as a surprise to read in The Guardian that nearly 750,000 people who have lost their jobs since this rcession began in 1979 have simply dropped off the rolls of unemployed workers. That means that actual unemployment is much higher than the official rate of 13.4 percent, which itself is a staggering figure even by British standards. A few years ago it was considered politically intolerable to have unemployment here reach one million; today it is three million.
Prosperity in the developed, capitalist countries depends on healthy markets elsewhere in the world, but today the rest of the world is also in terrible shape. The Soviet Union and its allies appear to be having probblems that are at least as serious as the West's. Last week Britain cut the Soviets from their list of most creditworthy countries. The Kremlin is reporting the fourth bad grain harvest in a row, the worst rate of growth since World War II and productivity, according to reports here, is growing at about half the targeted rate.
Since martial law was imposed last December, Poland has paid nothing of the $900 million in interest owed this year on its outstanding loans, let alone make a dent in the $30 billion it owes in principle. The cost of living in Poland went up 104 percent between January and June, while gross national product dropped 7.8 percent. In the past two years, the Polish standard of living has fallen by one-fourth.
Third World countries are also in desperate straits. A study released by the National Westminister Bank in London reports that the amount of long-term Third World debt to banks has grown from $51 billion in 1967 to $425 billion today. The author of the study concludes that "there is no reasonable prospect" of these debts being repaid in the forseeable future, so the international banking system is "locked in" to countries crippled by the worldwide recession.
The annual report of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development issued the other day is even gloomier, asserting, according to the London Times, that "the development process in the Third World has come virtually to a stop and its countries are facing their gravest economic crisis since the great depression."
Even many of the supposedly flush oil producers in OPEC are in trouble. U.S. bankers estimate that as a result of overproduction and spending policies, oil revenues in four of the leading OPEC countries -- Nigeria, Algeria, Venezuela and Indonesia -- are aleady 31 percent below the "minimum acceptable levels" for maintaining what the banks feel is assured political stability.
Economists doubtless would disagree on the meaning of all this bad news, but there is no question about its political consequences: new tensions all over the globe, among friends as well as rivals.
One of Britain's leading economic advisers observed the other day that the main lesson to be drawn from the global crisis is that no one has the answers any more, no matter how adamantly politicians might insist that they do. For the moment, there is no horizon to look over; getting all this sorted out, he said, is going to take a miracle -- at the very least.