Today the administration rails against the construction of a gas pipeline from the Soviet Union to Western Europe and debates how to block it. But both the words and melody are unconscious plagarisms; they have been heard more than once before.
Early in the Kennedy administration, the president assigned me the task of trying to obstruct the building of the so-called Freedom Pipeline that would bring Soviet oil into Western Europe. We could, it was thought, throw a giant spanner in the project by forcing the cancellation of contracts already made by West German steel mills to provide wide-diameter pipe.
By strenuous lobbying we cajoled a decision from NATO that the 200,000 tons of steel pipe promised by the German mills were a "strategic item," and our relentless arm-twisting finally persuaded a reluctant Chancellor Konrad Adenauer to order an embargo of the pipe. Because that order was issued under the government's emergency powers, the German parliament had the authority to overrule it by action within three months, and on the final day of that period a majority of the Bundestag threatened its repeal. The order was saved only when members of Adenauer's party abruptly departed, leaving the chamber seven votes short of a quorum.
But what a Pyrrhic victory! A year or two later Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin told me with a sardonic grin, "I wish to thank you on behalf of my government. When you got the Germans to renege on their contracts you forced my country to do what we should have done long before--build a mill to make wide-diameter pipe. Now we're independent of the world. So we're grateful to you."
On balance the exercise was anything but cost-effective; though we squandered valuable political capital, we only briefly delayed the Freedom Pipeline. What should that tell us about making the same mistake again?
Today the sovereign governments of the Federal Republic and of France have decided that the projected new gas pipeline is in their national interests, and this time the NATO Council will not forbid it. What then should we do? No doubt we have the ability to harass our allies; we could, as the confrontation wing of the administration is now urging, refuse to let them use machinery built under American license by their own companies, and we could try to stop European subsidiaries of American companies from providing equipment for the pipeline. But that would damage our own industry without blocking the pipeline; at most it would only make it less efficient.
Why do Germany and France want the pipeline? They understandably wish to avoid total dependence for their natural gas on such potentially unstable suppliers as Qatar, Libya and Algeria, and we--the world's greatest energy waster--have offered them no practical alternatives. Of course, they are not keen on being even marginally dependent on Soviet supplies, but they have balanced the risks against the advantages of diversified sources, and they do not consider the degree of dependence critical. In addition the massive work of constructing the pipeline would stimulate their depressed economies and relieve unemployment. Why should they give up those benefits to please an America that, though loudly calling for sanctions against the Soviet Union, is not prepared to impose a wheat embargo because that would hurt American farmers?
How would we Americans react under similar circumstances? Imagine our cries of outrage if our allies should try to use economic pressure to block our current trade with China, small as it is. But we once tried that tactic on one of them. Ten years before we began our own love affair with Peking the Canadians sold wheat to China. It made our government very angry; we not only castigated them self-righteously for supping with the devil but instructed American companies that their Canadian subsidiaries should refuse to let the Canadian Wheat Board use the only portable wheat-loaders in the country.
Of course, the Canadians howled to the heavens and, of course, we finally had to give in shamefacedly. Later we encountered the same outraged reaction when we used similar tactics to try to impose our trading prejudices on France. None of these arrogant maneuvers got us anywhere. We never won any of these fights; the most we accomplished by waging economic warfare against our allies was to make them resentful and more obdurate.
Will we someday outgrow our parochialism and acknowledge that we have no monopoly on wisdom? It would be a sanative experience for the American soul. Blaise Pascal wisely observed that "what is truth on one side of the Pyrenees is error on the other side," and we might profit from that adage if for "the Pyrenees" we were to substitute "the Atlantic" (or, in the case of the Reagan administration, "the Rockies"). How pleasant it would be to think that we might someday achieve maturity, but so far I see little reason to expect it.