Signs of discord on global economic policy multiply. Between Europe and the United States, a trade war threatens over European agricultural subsidies. Looking eastward toward Japan and Asia, the United States and Europe see no easy answer to the export-led dominance of the Pacific Rim nations in world markets. Meanwhile, Third World countries, citing Stage Two of the Mexican crisis, fear that the rich nations continue to underestimate the gravity of the overall debt situation.
And on another level, the major powers are engaged in an unresolved dispute among themselves on how to manage fiscal and monetary policies to prevent a potential global recession.
To the Reagan administration's credit, it has taken the lead in trying to generate a renewed spirit of international economic cooperation. Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III offered initiatives in the past year on stabilizing exchange rates and on Third World debt that offer some hope. But since the dramatic initial decline of the dollar after Baker's meeting with counterparts from four other large countries last September at the Plaza Hotel in New York, little else has happened.
"We are now caught in a policy stalemate," says New York economist Henry Kaufman. "Nobody knows who moves first." For example, the Reagan administration feels that a new round of interest-rate reductions is needed to regenerate economic growth. But West Germany, anxious to protect its own citizens against renewed inflation, holds back. Instead, the Germans call on the United States to produce some real results in reducing its budget deficit.
On Third World debt, there is a similar dilemma. Under Baker's plan, the commercial banks are expected to provide new loans while the debtor countries are supposed to undertake economic reforms. So far, it is an Alphonse-Gaston routine.
Meanwhile, the administration looks to the World Bank, under new boss Barber Conable, to take a lead role, expanding its loans among the borrowing nations. But the Reagan White House not only isn't asking for new money for the Bank, it risks losing 20 percent of already approved commitments to Gramm-Rudman limitations unless Reagan authorizes increased tax revenue to pay the bill.
Rep. Dave Obey (D-Wis.), whose House subcommittee must approve all foreign-aid appropriations, says that without larger tax revenues the $15 billion foreign-aid bill, which incorporates all monies for bilateral aid to Egypt, Israel and the Caribbean, as well as the multilateral development banks will be cut by as much as $4 billion across the board to meet Gramm-Rudman targets. That would be an especially devastating blow to the Bank's soft loans made by the International Development Association.
Meanwhile, the dispute between the United States and Europe over the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) gets increasingly hot. On an intellectual level, few European leaders defend the CAP, which pays fat subsidies to European farmers. But with France and Germany each having 10 to 12 percent of its population still on the farms, against 2 percent in the United States, "Europe will never succumb to American pressure to get rid of CAP," said a leading French banker.
"Never" is a long time, but the bitterness on agriculture issues doesn't bode well for the launching of a new round of negotiations on trade, scheduled for this fall.
Meanwhile, the struggle to achieve greater coordination of international monetary policy, launched at the Plaza Hotel and endorsed by the May Tokyo summit, has stalled for the moment.
The central bankers among the leading industrial nations would be happy to see greater stability of exchange rates. But they worry about the push for some form of "target zones" to control the big ups and downs of the dollar and other currencies in the exchange markets. They conclude that in such a system -- which is supposed to keep rates from moving outside of an agreed-upon range -- the politicians who can't easily get changes in their nations' tax and spending policies will call on them to adjust monetary policy.
Some of these issues will be addressed over the weekend at a private meeting among financial bigwigs in Zurich who want to keep the momentum going for international coordination. They will do well, a senior European central banker observes, to keep the markets believing that the authorities will come up with some kind of private plan to deal with emergencies.
Something more than such an untidy, ad-hoc system is needed to break out of the policy stalemate. The seven major nations -- the United States, Japan, West Germany, France, England, Canada and Italy -- need to pay more than lip service to the idea of coordination of policy on an international level. Yet, no formal G-7 sessions are now planned prior to the fall annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Says Baker: "I hope I made it clear to everybody that this is a long-term process."