As soon as they began, sarcastically, to call it the "Bitburg Summit," it was a sign that nothing much was going to be accomplished on economic problems at Bonn.
In the end, the Bonn economic summit turned out to be close to a bust: at a time when the global economy clearly needed the benefit of active steps to ward off protectionist trends, spur economic growth and reduce unemployment, the seven leading industrial nations failed to promise much beyond the status quo.
There were several related economic goals at Bonn, chief among them the effort of the United States and Japan to get a new round of multilateral trade negotiations started in 1986. Despite pledges by earlier summits to roll back protectionist devices and methods, all sorts of restraints on trade have been proliferating.
But an adamant French president -- defensive about the cheap rate of the French franc against the strong American dollar -- blocked the will of the other six. Fearful that a new round would reduce the protection afforded French farmers under the European Common Agricultural Policy, Francois Mitterrand said: "They asked me for discussions in 1986 when the ground isn't fully prepared. I said 'no.'
French stubbornness is nothing new. Back in 1978 (at the first Bonn summit), French President Val,ery Giscard d'Estaing said he would block a trade round then about to begin. But Giscard bent to pressure: he did not want to be isolated in Europe, or risk a break with West Germany, France's largest trading partner.
"Mitterrand's willingness to be isolated," said an American observer, "may be the best indication of the degree of France's economic troubles, and the extent to which Mitterrand is worried about next year's parliamentary elections." Polls already indicate that the conservatives will win, which could make it difficult for Mitterrand to remain in power, although his term runs until 1988.
Naturally, Reagan administration officials put the best face possible on the failure to get a starting date for the trade negotiations. They point out that all, including France, endorse the idea of a trade round "as soon as possible," and that a preparatory session will be held in July.
But the hard reality is that this group won't be working under the discipline that would result if it had a deadline to meet. If it gets bogged down trying to create an agenda that will satisfy Mitterrand, there is the danger that the U.S. Congress, already sounding protectionist, will be difficult to restrain.
"There will be more political opportunities for Congress to blow its cool," says an experienced trade negotiator.
But the failure at Bonn goes beyond the trade issue. The Americans wanted to encourage West Germany, Japan and possibly Britain to expand their economies, in order to take up some of the economic slack appearing in the United States. They struck out: European leaders made clear they give a higher priority to avoiding a renewal of inflation than stimulating growth -- despite raging unemployment.
By the same token, few tough words were addressed to Reagan on the problems of the U.S. budget deficit and the overvalued dollar or to the Japanese on their global trade surplus. Earlier talk of a monetary conference disappeared into the vague notation that the matter would be discussed at the next annual meeting of the World Bank and IMF. Like the others, Reagan got away with a pledge that doesn't go beyond the commitment of present American policy.
And what did the Third World get out of Bonn? The debt problem was brushed off in ho-hum language. And the leaders said they "stand ready" to discuss greater resources for the World Bank, even though everybody knows that in reality the United States is opposed to the idea.
In reaching for one token of success, American officials cite the endorsement by all nations of various supply-side and market-oriented techniques that the Reagan people assert account for the recovery and job spurt in the United States. But there is nothing in the communiqu,e to suggest that European advances on this front will go forward any faster because of anything that was said or agreed upon at Bonn.
The most serious fallout from Bonn is that the failure is sure to reinforce the argument that summits at best are a wasteful exercise, taking up huge amounts of preparatory time and serving only narrow political purposes.
But I would argue that these summits, which bring the leaders face to face on economic issues once a year, must continue. It is especially important for the American president to listen to the problems of the others. For too long, this country has gone about its business, not caring much about the impact of its enormous economy on the world.
But as imports cut deeper into American jobs, we are beginning to realize how much our own prosperity is tied to global prosperity. It's better to be talking than not talking, even when the leaders -- as in this case -- didn't agree.