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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Last Chance for GATT

WASHINGTON - It's just over a month to go now to decide whether Dec. 15 will go down in history as "Black Wednesday". That is the glum prediction as time runs out on negotiations for a new General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, blocked above all by the Franco-American impasse on grain subsidies.


Everybody wants the long delayed GATT Uruguay Round to succeed, and most concede that this year's third "last deadline" really is the last chance. Most believe failure will not only prolong the world recession, but quite likely lead to trade and currency wars and possible spill over to unravel the Western security system which brought success in the Cold War.


But everybody wants the magic solution to come by concessions from the other side, so the dire warnings are taken as part of the game as it hurtles over the edge.


A group of French and American experts met in the nearby Virginia countryside last weekend to talk about the rasping friction that has plagued the two countrie's official relations for the past couple of years.


The meeting was organized by the Institut Francais de Relations Internationales and the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies to see if a quiet two days closeted in a luxury hotel could not overcome suspicions and replace heat with light.


It did one thing, proving beyond a doubt that both sides have real problems that they don't quite know how to handle but which they put ahead of reaching agreement.


Both, as one participant said, have become prisoners of the emotions stirred, public opinion aroused, domestic social distress and weak governments. Both are tempted to blame the other for bad will, selfish ambition or the urge to dominate, and for devious plots.


There is absolutely no proportion between the high stakes and the actual issues, which would be minor if they weren't swaddled with fluffy notions of principle, identity, geostrategy, dragged in to justify indignation. and yet there is something underneath, nagging in the inflated rhetoric of pique.


Basically, there is no evidence that the French as a people are anti-American or that Americans are contemptuous of France. This persistent animosity is essentially a government-to-government, or even a bureaucracy-to-bureaucracy affair, aggravated by political convenience when excuses are needed for the home front.


It goes back to Gaullist mythology and French pain at losing status in the world, butting against America's surprise at finding itself a superpower, which brought first overweening pride and now a petulant doubt that other people's troubles are worth bothering about.


The underlying national assumptions of friendship, or being ON the same team, of needing and wanting each other's support remain valid. But it is governments, steered by bureaucracies, which arc going to make the crucial decisions, and they are not much concerned with basics of international relations these days. Preparing elections and getting key bills passed are the preoccupations.


Nonetheless, both Paris and Washington - and practically all the other major and minor capitals - are well aware that the way things are going is a recipe for making all worse off, perhaps much worse. It is a kind of auto-pilot syndrome, as though nothing could be done to change the pernicious course.


The Americans say, and probably believe, that although they would like a GATT agreement, they will not manage too badly without one. They can turn to the Pacific, to Latin America for partners. Of course, that only infuriates the French who take it as another sign of American arrogance that must, honorably, be resisted.


Predictions of immediate disaster are exaggerated. If failure has to be admitted, no doubt there will be efforts to fudge and keep the slippery slope from being precipitous. Stock and currency markets will take fright and there will be an attempt to calm them.


But it is an unconscionable slippery slope. Dennis Healey's "first law of holes" is being idiotically violated. It is, "When you're in one, stop digging".


That is possible. It will take what now seems unlikely though by no means extravagant compromise, and an even more unlikely willingness quietly telegraphed beforehand to abjure claims of victory, trumpeting agreement as the greatest benefit for all. But time is running out and the hole is getting deeper with the dark, dangerous bottom out of sight.


1993 Flora Lewis