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A Time of Optimism for the West : Logjams Broken, Stalemates Ended

January 05, 1986|Don Cook | Don Cook is The Times' European diplomatic correspondent.

PARIS — Special good wishes for the year past are in order for political leaders and diplomats of the West. They have delivered a sackful of presents for the world in the last six weeks, in the form of agreements long overdue that make the outlook for progress on major problems in the coming year better than it has been for a decade.

The centerpiece, of course, was Geneva, where dialogue at last replaced years of East-West acrimony and deadlock, even if immediate practical results were meager. But the superpower summit was only one of a number of significant year-end diplomatic successes. Logjams have been broken, stalemates ended and decisions made on a wide variety of problems that considerably transform the outlook for 1986.

It all began in November, when British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Irish Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald signed a historic agreement on Anglo-Irish cooperation in Northern Ireland. Then a week after the superpower summit came agreement, also in Geneva, to begin a new round of world trade negotiations in 1986.

The following week, in Luxembourg, heads of government of the European Community negotiated non-stop for 15 hours and put together an important package of changes in the 1958 Treaty of Rome. This is expected to speed the creation of a true European Common Market, free of all internal barriers and border restrictions, by 1992.

After that, on the arms-control front, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization advanced proposals in the 13-year-old talks with the Warsaw Pact in Vienna on conventional force reductions in Central Europe--proposals that open the way for real progress toward agreement at last, if the Soviet Union is interested.

Along with these achievements, the dollar is coming down to a more equitable rate on world foreign-exchange markets. Promising discussions are under way in the international banking community on a new package to refinance Third World debt. And a free market prevails at last for world oil prices, after more than a decade in which the shots have been called, with less and less effectiveness, by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

There is a common denominator in all these achievements. None of the problems have actually been solved. But doors that had been closed are now open. And in every case, the political leaders and the diplomats have agreed that it is time to get on with the job.

FitzGerald and Thatcher have no more solved the Ulster problem than Ronald Reagan and Mikhail S. Gorbachev have solved the East-West problem. But they have institutionalized dialogue and cooperation. Predictably, the Protestants of the north are up in arms about the agreement, but that will not stop Dublin and London from cooperating. This, it is to be devoutly hoped, is the beginning of a long-term process of amelioration.

FitzGerald, the son of a Roman Catholic father and a Protestant mother from Ulster, is the most humane and sensitive prime minister Ireland has had in years. Thatcher is not noted for her compassion, but much more important right now is her toughness and iron will, her determination not to be blown off course or blocked or derailed by extremists. Together they have changed the Irish debate.

On the trade front, it was pretty clear when the 90 nations of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade gathered in Geneva that they had to move forward or go backward; they could no longer stand still, arguing, as they had for more than a year. The end, as it often is in such international deadlocks, was undramatic and unspectacular. Difficulties were finessed; GATT will go forward. And it will be long, hard slogging.

The European Community summit meeting in Luxembourg turned out to be a watershed success after far too many frustrating failures in the past several years. The building of a united Europe is an endless process, like weaving a complicated tapestry with the design constantly changing, but Luxembourg was one of those rare moments when participants knew this time they had to succeed. It is rare, and not always wise, for heads of government to actually get involved in detailed treaty negotiations which is normally the work of diplomatic experts. But they did.

If Luxembourg was not the success that European idealists are always hoping for, it nevertheless achieved the basic necessity of restoring momentum to the process of bringing down Europe's economic and political barriers. There was a cohesiveness and a sense of common purpose in the decisions that was almost more important than the texts negotiated, for it signaled a real political will to achieve strong European entity.

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