IF THE ECONOMIC MEETING in Bonn goes as the Carter administration expects, it will be denounced as dull and unproductive. If there are any really startling developments, it will probably mean that something has gone seriously wrong. For seven highly experienced politicians, the head of the rich countries' governments have got themselves into an unusually awkward position. They are meeting under circumstances that inevitably generate a lot of expectations among people who are worried about the future of the world's economy. But there seems to be no large dramatic gesture within reach of the seven that could bring much reassurance to their audience. The best they can do, in reality,is to take the pledge to keep their governments talking together and working together - and to keep trying to deliver on unmet past pledges.
There was a time when an American president never got on an airplane without first seeing to it that a large and robust rabbit had been carefully stowed in the false bottom of the presidential hat, to be produced at the right moment to the awe and delight of the crowd. That was part of the mystique of the presidency. Presidents didn't like to go into meetings without carrying final drafts of the statements to be produced at the conclusion, bearing large promises of imminent salvation. Not all of the change in the past few years is entirely due to Mr. Carter personally, or his manner of conducting the office.
The fiasco over oil policy can be fairly attributed to the Carter administration, and other governments are justified in taking it as a sign that the Americans won't or can't act on a matter of urgent common concern. But it's necessary to add that there's a disingenuous element in some of the current sermonizing from Europe and, especially, Japan in regard to oil. While the United States has not enacted an energy bill as promised, it is equally true that Japan has not done anything about its large and oppresive trade surplus, as also promised. The Japanese, not to anyone's surprise, would rather direct attention to oil issues than to trade issues.
But if the failure of energy policy can be laid to Mr. Carter, the uncertainties over the world's money system can not. Until the early 1970s the world's currencies were all more or less fixed on the American dollar. But during the Nixon administration that system came unglued because other nations had grown rich and powerful; the flows of trade and money had become too great for any one nation to dominate and manage.
As the yen and the mark rise, and the dollar declines, other governments anxiously ask the Americans what they are going to do about it. The answer in: not much. Stabilizing the dollar is impossible, the U.S. Treasury keeps saying, until the U.S. inflation rate and the U.S. trade deficit come down - and mentioning the U.S. trade deficit brings the argument back, inevitably, to oil and to the German and Japanese trade surpluses.
The central importance of the Bonn meeting is that the other six rich nations are now, reluctantly and painfully, coming to terms with the truth that the United States can no longer order the world's economy. It no longer towers over the other six. Some of the Europeans have already begun to make their own proposals laid out in the Common Market's meeting last week in Bremen.But shifting to a new style of joint leadership is not so easy. The second and third most powerful among the seven are the defeated nations of World War II. History inhibits Germany and Japan from exercising the influence to which their economic power might otherwise entitle them.
For the present, the success of meetings like the one in Bonn is likely to be measured in negatives: The agreements not to resort to protectionism, the determination not to abandon foreign responsibilities, the restraint not to charge bad faith when other countries have trouble meeting their promises. Bonn will not much change the condition of the seven: richer than ever, but feeling very unsureand unsafe in the new world that their own rising wealth has created.