The United States allies in Europe and Japan are getting worried about the American inability - or is it unwillingness? - to curb oil imports. The best reasons for controlling oil consumption are, of course, to protect this country's own national security and economic stability. But the debate has been almost exclusively in terms of domestic interests. There's another dimension to the issue that generally goes unmentioned in this country. It's the political effect in Western Europe and Japan of the spectacle of the American government lost in wandering, inconclusive debate over energy.
The Carter energy bill is still hung up in that marathon congressional conference. The most effectlive section of the bill, the tax on crude oil, is not likely to be enacted at all. This deadlock in Congress has acquired great symbolic signigicance abroad. There it is taken as an indication of American refusal to deal seriously with a subject of urgent common concern.
The American failure to restrain oil imports has had harsher consequences abroad, so far, than here. Other industrial countries, more dependent on OPEC's oil than the United States, fear that unrestrained American demand will hasten the crisis that President Carter has predicted and strengthen the forces within OPEC that want sharply higher prices. The large American trade deficits, caused mainly by oil imports, weaken the dollar abroad. The impacts on other countries' domestic economies are severe, ranging from bankruptcies in Japan to unemployment in Germany. If other governments become persuaded that the United States is no longer going to respond to acknowledged economic threats like excessive oil imports, they are going to try to protect themselves in ways damaging to everyone. That means protectionism. The French are already talking about "organized free trade."
Next month President Carter will meet in Bonn with his counterparts from six other big industrial countries to attempt to draft a joint economic program. The United States wants its partners to do a number of things that they say will be difficult and painful. They, in turn, want the United States to do two things: to show that it takes inflation seriously, and to demonstrate that it is not going to let its oil imports keep floating upward without limit. The Carter administration's present attention to inflation is probably as much as anyone expects it to be able to do for the present on that score. But on oil imports, it is going to have to come up with much more specific action if it is to be persuasive. Otherwise, Mr. Carter takes a severe risk that the whole summit conference will evaporate in generalities and evasions. The other governments are now fixed on the American performance on oil-import curb as a test of intentions. If the United States does not meet that test, other governments are not likely to respond with much enthusiasm to the requests being made of them.
What kind of curbs? Quotas on oil imports are not an inviting idea. The only other possibility would be import fees imposed by presidential order. The administration is profoundly reluctant to resort to import fees, for it still hopes to persuade Congress to pass the crude-oil tax sthis year. But that hope becomes thinner by the week. Certainly this country has stronger reasons to act rapidly on imports than merely to rescue an international meeting. But if the Bonn meeting in July is a washout, the fragmentation of purpose among the rich countries is only likely to increase.