Europe, a Swiss diplomat says, ''is so preoccupied with itself these days that it can't focus on global problems.'' But that's true as well in North America and Asia -- a signal that doesn't bode well for the Houston economic summit next month.
To be sure, there are reasons beyond regional insularities to be skeptical that much will be accomplished under the broiling midsummer sun in President Bush's home base.
Among unresolved issues on the international economic front are a continuing dispute between the United States and Japan on trade and current account imbalances, between the United States and the rest of the world on how to deal with inflation and the environment, and between the United States and Europe on agricultural subsidies.
But most critical is the need for risk capital, debt relief and other forms of financial assistance to Eastern Europe, Latin America and other developing parts of the globe -- and the Western powers as a group don't seem prepared to cope with the demand. And how to help the Soviet Union avert economic collapse is a conundrum yet to be solved.
Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady, in a London speech a few days ago, lamented the fact that at ''this historic juncture'' the West is short of resources. ''Let's face it,'' Brady said, ''the world is short of capital, and governments are shorter still.'' For America, he said that means most of its help to Eastern Europe will be limited to its contributions to the World Bank and the IMF.
Put another way, the economic pinch America feels as a consequence of a decade of horrendous budget deficits will leave the management of Eastern Europe's transition to capitalism in the hands of Western Europe -- a situation that is welcomed by Western Europeans bent on forging ''Europe 1992'' into a superpower of sorts rivaling Japan and North America.
Europeans are tired of American veto power in the World Bank and the IMF, and have carefully steered the control of the new European Bank for Reconstruction and Development into their own hands. (The United States will get a consolation prize in the deputy presidency of the EBRD because, with a 10 percent share, it is the single largest stockholder.)
Thus, for all of the talk of widening global cooperation through broader international trade, the reality is that regionalism is winning the day. While Europe consolidates, Japan's investment strategy is building an awesome potential throughout Asia. And Washington is exploring the idea of extending its North American free-trade agreement with Canada to a new one with Mexico.
Certainly, the recent bitter wrangle in Paris at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development finance ministers' meeting was an ominous harbinger for global harmony. It was another sign that the economic coordination process among the major powers has been fading.
The OECD ministerial session has been treated in recent years as a trial run for the seven-nation economic summit. But this year, it ducked all macroeconomic issues as too tough to solve. It concentrated instead on trying to give a political nudge to the Uruguay trade round by bridging the gulf between the United States and the Common Market on how to control growing agricultural surpluses. And in that self-assigned role, it failed completely.
If the community had acceded to the demands by U.S. officials Carla Hills and Clayton Yeutter, said EEC farm commissioner Raymond MacSherry, 2 million to 3 million European farmers would have lost their jobs, ''and we can't ever agree to that. Politically, it is impossible.''
Another strong debate in Paris focused on whether inflation is a serious global threat. British Chancellor of the Exchequer John Major told the OECD that ''the main risk to continued growth and prosperity in our economies is undoubtedly inflation.'' Most other European finance ministers agree.
But Brady argued, ''We need to maintain a balanced view of the inflation risk and not allow excess concern to undermine the prospects for continued economic expansion.'' The Bush administration is more concerned with domestic political goals: it discourages the notion that inflation is the No. 1 global problem, because it is pushing Alan Greenspan at the Fed to lower interest rates so as to cushion declining economic activity.
So as key Houston summit agenda items, write off strong declarations on trade, inflation, debt relief and exchange rates in favor of pious generalities. What about the environment? After years of ignoring the impact of industrial development on the environment, Europe complains that the United States has turned penny pincher, and won't endorse any proposal at Houston that costs real money.
What's left for Houston beyond a reaffirmation of the institution of motherhood? There are the old standbys: declarations against the drug trade and the need to more effectively deal with terrorism. Then, on to London for more of the same in 1991.