PARIS — When French President Francois Mitterrand returned from the economic summit conference in Bonn, where he enjoyed playing the role of odd man out, he invited a small group of journalists to the Elysee Palace and remarked that he might not attend next year's conference in Tokyo.
"It is a would-be institution without rules . . . a closed arena where partners oppose each other," was Mitterrand's somewhat sour but not inaccurate appraisal of these annual meetings for heads of seven major governments in the non-communist world.
Well, maybe Mitterrand is right: It's time to call off these talks. In the 11 years since French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing organized the first of them at Rambouillet Chateau, near Paris, the summits have produced nothing for the history books except an expensive annual photo. Not once has there been anything to sound the trumpets about, anything that in any way has justified the elaborate get-together. Every year the mountain has labored and brought forth a mouse.
Moreover, the basic problem with these conferences is not merely a matter of expensive non-events; they have reached a point where fundamental disagreements are beginning to outweigh agreements.
In Bonn, it was easy for everybody to agree with President Reagan about how terrible the drug problem is, but then everybody disagreed with him about the U.S. trade embargo against Nicaragua. The balance in Bonn between small things agreed upon and larger things not agreed upon barely justified the usual self-congratulatory declarations of "success." The differences are likely to be impossible to plaster over next year in Tokyo.
There are two broad problems ahead that make for a dismal, potentially disastrous future summit. The first is a basket of real economic tensions among member states. The other is the lame-duck political condition of most of the leaders.
As for the economic outlook, the supposed focal point of these meetings:
--Will Japan a year from now be importing much more from her major trading partners or exporting much less to them? Will the American trade deficit look much different, or will domestic budget-cutting measures by Congress have little effect?
--Will American interest rates have dropped? Will the American economy be a locomotive any longer? Where will the dollar be, and what about monetary reform?
--Will Europe (or Japan) have taken up any slack from an American slowdown? Will trade talks have moved past the preparatory stage, and will protectionism be on the rise? Will anybody be ready to agree on the arguments finessed in Bonn?
As for lame-duck leaders, the Bonn meeting was a demonstration of creeping political paralysis, and it will be worse from now on. Mitterrand's odd-man-out refusal to set a date for a new round of trade talks was partly justified by the merits of his argument and mostly required by his political situation at home. By the next meeting, the French will have elected a new National Assembly, and there is no hope that his Socialist Party will have retained control. Mitterrand will then have two more years before a presidential election, and he will certainly be more Gaullist--more going his own way--in his political behavior, whether he will be running again or not.
President Reagan will be at the midway point in his lame-duck term. Chancellor Helmut Kohl of West Germany will be within a year of facing the voters, having tried without much success to win some political plus out of the Bonn conference. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain will be past the halfway point in her second term. And it would be another "Italian miracle" if Premier Bettino Craxi, already 22 months in office and the second longest-serving Italian head of government since the war, were still around.
To these uncertainties, add such questions as the state of East-West relations and the nuclear-arms talks, the crosscurrents and differences in Europe about the American "Star Wars" program.
None of this means that the fundamental common purpose, common values and common beliefs of the Western World are about to fall apart. But what it does indicate, in the light of Bonn, is that it will not do much good, and may do much harm, for the seven heads of government to meet if their domestic politics and economic problems are too sensitive to pretend that all is harmony and accord.
Better they should heed the advice of Niccolo Machiavelli, who said: "It is an error for princes to come together in their persons to consummate what their envoys have failed to do." Better they should agree now, quietly, among themselves, to stay at home.