PARIS -- History's web has snared events of the past two weeks and left them exposed in close proximity in its threads. The resulting pattern suggests that we live in a world radically different and more threatening than the one we inhabited just a few days ago -- a world in which American influence and prosperity are on the decline.
The wild gyrations of the stock market, the dollar and interest rates created political winners and losers as well as financial ones. American prestige and leadership were marked down sharply abroad in a reaction that not even the current market rebound and the Dec. 7 Soviet-American summit are likely to overcome.
Lingering damage has been done to the idea that U.S.-style free markets represent the irresistible wave of the future for the rest of the world. In Britain and France, conservative prime ministers who have proudly promoted the sale of stock market shares in denationalized firms to the populace as a way of spreading capitalism (and boosting their own political fortunes) suddenly have egg all over their faces.
Left-of-center parties are seeing their only recently discredited policies of strong market regulation and control of the economy take on new life as a result of what is being portrayed even by the conservatives as an American-caused debacle. Since leftist governments then in power took the brunt of the political fallout of the 1979 oil shock, they are savoring this potential reversal.
Seen from abroad, America seemed mesmerized by the Wall Street crash, the sudden lurches in the Soviet-American dialogue on arms control and the failure of a weakened president to get the Supreme Court justice of his choice. This spurred efforts to develop alternatives to dependence on American leadership.
Bonn and Paris escalated discussion of French-German cooperation on nuclear strategy, which has always been a coded way for the West Germans to express doubts about U.S. security policies that they cannot voice directly. (Neither government has any interest in the subject on its own merits.) In The Hague, seven West European nations issued their own security declaration in an implicit vote of diminished confidence in American abilities and commitments.
In the Persian Gulf, Kuwait watched in dismay as the United States declined to retaliate for an Iranian attack on a vital Kuwaiti oil terminal. The Kuwaitis then let it be known they were deeply involved in discussions with Egypt about providing military protection for the sheikdom in return for a massive economic aid program.
The American decision to show restraint at this point was, in fact, prudent. The well conceptualized U.S. retaliatory strike against an Iranian oil platform the week before also deserves praise rather than criticism. But, however sensible in their own terms, such actions cannot be separated out from the overall failure of overwhelming American military force to calm the Persian Gulf and the impact of the financial crash on the use of American power abroad.
The image of U.S. Navy gunners shooting up a deserted Iranian platform at about the time world stock markets began to crash now symbolizes the refusal of this administration to match its open-ended military ambitions with its diminishing economic autonomy. It is Reagan's unintended version of Conrad's gunboat senselessly lobbing shells into the African interior in "Heart of Darkness."
A current but uncelebrated anniversary helps demonstrate that the transition that lies ahead can be shaped into something that benefits America and the countries that share its values and economic system. It is just 30 years ago that colonial Europe began its final retreat, as the Gold Coast became Ghana. Ousted settlers and conservative politicians at home predicted disaster as European markets lost their guaranteed supplies of rubber, cocoa, diamonds, peanuts and other commodities from Africa and Asia, in terms as dire as anything being voiced now about America's future.
Today in the prosperous and sophisticated cities of Europe it is hard to remember what the fuss was about. Gradually freed of the burdens of colonialism, the Europeans plunged into the Common Market, which also began in 1957, and sped through a transition in which they became less important in running the world's affairs but more attuned to the needs of their own societies.
Two weeks of turmoil have made it clear that something like that lies ahead for America. The task now is to manage that transition to our advantage.