WITH THE JUMP in gasoline prices, the cry has once again gone up for a national energy plan. But what kind of a plan? This country has had a succession of them since 1973, when oil prices began swinging up and down.
The first energy plan was President Nixon's declaration that the country would make itself independent of any need for imports. That was a very American response -- but it was pure isolationism, decades out of date. Even if the United States were able to do without imports -- and it's not, at any manageable cost -- it could no more allow its allies to be whipsawed by excessive oil prices than it could allow them to be threatened by the Soviet army.
President Carter's plan was much more sophisticated, calling for conservation and a rapid push toward alternative sources of energy. Both were -- and are -- sensible ideas, but they hadn't progressed far enough to provide much protection when the second oil crisis arrived in 1979. As for President Reagan, he abandoned the whole concept of energy planning and cheerily said that he'd leave it to the markets. He had the good luck to be in office during a time of falling oil prices.
President Bush's energy plan is, so far, the American military force rapidly expanding in the Saudi desert. There are already beginning to be murmurs of protest at the cost of this operation. But before you join that chorus, you might want to consider for a moment the alternative -- the cost of oil at the heights to which the Iraqis, if they controlled the Persian Gulf, might be tempted to push it.
The market for oil is worldwide, set by world supply and world demand. No country by itself, not even one as large as the United States, can have much impact if it works alone. Effective energy policy has to be international. Conservation is essential to take the strain off limited supplies and discourage any further escalation of prices. But a barrel of oil saved anywhere in the world will have the same effect on the supply-demand balance as a barrel saved here.
Eastern Europe, to take an important example, is by a wide margin the world's most grossly inefficient user of oil. Helping the Eastern European countries to modernize would be one of the fastest and most productive ways for the West to cut global oil consumption and stabilize energy costs for everybody. Past energy policies failed because they addressed only American needs. The next one, beginning with the troops in Saudi Arabia, is necessarily going to have to operate on a larger scale.