"Trilateralism"-nature abhors labels but men insist on them-is the latest attempt both to describe and to prescribe for the relationship between the United States and the other principal democratic, industrialized, market-economy states. Under the aegis of the so-called Trilateral Commission-an organization of influential private citizens from these countries-it has been the focus of a well-organized effort over the past four years to propose a set of solutions to many of the principal common problems of international society. Trilateralism has explicitly been embraced by the Democratic candidate for the presidency as a central theme of his foreign policy. Recently it has also become a staple of Secretary of State Kissinger's speeches. Its connotations of symmetry and order-the triangle is one of the most aesthetically satisfying of geometrical forms -contrast strikingly with the pervasive lack of evident order in human affairs.

The three points of the triangle are, of course, the United States (or, in deference to sensitivities north of the 49th parallel, North America), Western Europe, and Japan. They are also the loci of the bulk of the world's present wealth and of its present capacity for production. Their very listing evokes images of a rich man's club-which, for many purposes, they constitute. That they do raises questions both of equity and efficacy: the existing global distribution of wealth and power is clearly "unfair," yet it may seem less unfair if the trilateral grouping were to serve as the engine of progress and enrichment for those less fortunate. That it can so serve-indeed, that it must be made to do so-is one of the central assumptions of the Trilateral Commission and its adherents.1


Between two points of the triangle-the United States and Western Europe-the connecting line has been both firm and thick since 1947-48, when the perceived need to organize against the menace of a Soviet Union then in the process of extending its control over Eastern Europe led to an American interest and involvement in the affairs of Western Europe qualitatively different from that of the prewar era. The rationale that joined together the several nations of Western Europe and that linked them all to the United States was their mutual possession of a common core of liberal, democratic values to which the collectivist, totalitarian values of Stalin's Russia were unalterably opposed. The fact that liberal democracy was a new and perhaps fragile transplant to a German Federal Republic-itself largely a creation of the Anglo-French-American occupation regime-and that during the 1930s liberal democracy had been severely shaken as a political creed throughout the rest of Western Europe and even in the United Kingdom, served only to reinforce the postwar view that special measures were necessary to assure that it would survive and prosper. Those special measures included massive American economic assistance under the Marshall Plan and a standing peacetime alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Like the American sponsorship of liberal democracy in Germany, these measures aimed also at protecting the European states against internal threats-attempts by the Communist Left (or, then less likely, the far Right) to seize power by forceful means.

The second leg of the triangle, between the United States and Japan, had similar origins. In Asia the perceived menace of the Soviet Union was compounded by that of a Communist Chinese state apparently in close alliance with Moscow. Japan became the keystone of an American security system around the Asian periphery. Even more than in the case of Western Europe, the U.S.-Japan security relationship was accompanied by (indeed, was preceded by) an intensive American effort to inculcate liberal democratic political institutions and values to serve as anchors against either a return to right-wing militarism or a move toward the Communist Left. Again, as in the case of Western Europe, the United States initially dwarfed its Japanese client in economic and military power. In the Japanese case, however, the drastic military asymmetry has remained, but the economic relationship has turned (given disparities in population size) into much more of a relationship between equals. In the boom conditions of the 1960s the U.S.-West Europe and U.S.-Japan economic relationships were at the root of a remarkable dynamism.

American efforts to foster Japanese economic strength and political solidity took the course, initially, of allowing Japan to exempt herself from the postwar Western system of reciprocal rules and obligations governing trade and investment. Later, once Japan's full recovery was assured, American policy turned toward promoting Japanese participation in the whole network of Western economic institutions. Japan's "arrival" was symbolized by the conversion in 1960-61 of the Organization of European Economic Cooperation into the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), explicitly dropping the geographical limitation to Europe and adding the United States, Canada and Japan (and, later, Australia and New Zealand) to what now became an "advanced nation club."

However, Japan's formal admission to the "First World" (as some have called it) did not really constitute the third, West Europe-Japan side of the triangle. U.S.-Japan relations are far more rich and variegated than those between Japan and Western Europe, which are predominantly concerned with economic issues-and even in that sphere, the flows of money, goods and persons between Japan and Western Europe are considerably less dense than those between Japan and the United States. During 1975, Japan's trade with the United States was more than twice her trade with Western Europe-and her trade with Western Europe was only slightly larger than her trade with the Communist nations. Thus, despite assiduous work by private bodies like the Trilateral Commission and the Atlantic Institute-both of which have worked hard to foster linkages between elites in Western Europe and Japan-the third leg of the triangle remains far more an aspiration than an accomplished fact. Ironically enough, where commonality of purpose has been evidenced between Japan and Western Europe, it has often been catalyzed by common opposition to actions and policies of the United States.


Trilateralism as a linguistic expression-and the Trilateral Commission-arose in the early 1970s from the reaction of the more Atlanticist part of the American foreign policy community to the belligerent and defensive unilateralism that characterized the foreign economic policy of the Nixon Administration, then dominated by Secretary of the Treasury John Connally. That policy was based upon the assumption that Western Europe and Japan had prospered at American expense, and that the dynamism of their economies (and the apparent sluggishness of the American) had come because the "leadership" role of the United States had prevented us at crucial moments from taking the kind of unilateral remedial measures-trade and investment restrictions, currency devaluations, and the like-to which other OECD governments so frequently resorted. The trilateralists agreed on the diagnosis: the relative balance of economic strengths had so changed that the United States could no longer play the role of economic leader. But they also argued that further American unilateralism would fuel a spiral of defensive reactions that would leave all the Western economies worse off. Their suggested remedy, instead, was much more far-reaching coordination among all the trilateral governments.

Within a very short time, however, this diagnosis came to appear only partly relevant: the recession brought on by unilateral escalation of petroleum prices in 1973-74 by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) exposed substantial economic weakness in Japan and much of Western Europe and emphasized the continuing basic underlying strengths of the American economy. Yet even that strength has been only relative, for the decade of the 1970s has been a time when the West as a whole has seemed very much at bay. The rise of OPEC has been accompanied by a new Third World militancy in the United Nations and other international forums. This militancy has in turn engendered something of a laager mentality and a perceived need for "hunkering down" within the Western camp. In all the Western countries (a category that, for these purposes, includes Japan), the remarkable growth in prosperity of the 1960s suddenly seemed threatened. In some, standards of living actually dropped. Where "openness"-the reduction of barriers to economic flows of all sorts-once seemed a key to rising prosperity, as a result of unilateral actions in the 1970s openness began to seem (as indeed it has always been) a source of vulnerability as well. Rather than the further reductions of barriers, "beggar-thy-neighbor" strategies reminiscent of the 1930s often seemed more in keeping with the times.

In this climate of astringency (if not gloom), a united front on the part of the advanced industrialized Western societies has seemed to many observers the only effective way both to counter the new demands and militant actions of the Third World (such as the 1973 OPEC boycott), and also to meet the prospective threat of a Soviet Union with a newly developed global military reach-witness Angola-and possibly increased ambitions. Where trilateralism began as a formula-and a forum-for coordinating economic policy among the advanced market economies, it has come to mean something much more far-reaching-"a partnership between North America, Western Europe, and Japan," to quote Governor Carter. As such, trilateralism has two faces, one turned inward, the other outward.

The inward face has been concerned chiefly with preserving for the industrialized societies-indeed, expanding-the advantages which, during the 1960s, flowed from openness and increased interdependence, while limiting their adverse consequences. This means, of course, common-or at least closely coordinated-policies toward money, trade, energy, pollution, and many of the other issues common to the advanced nations and important in their relations with one another. And it requires a set of political leaders in the West with sufficient political power in their own societies and sufficient confidence in one another-a confidence achieved by frequent and intimate consultation-to be able to abstain from measures conducive to short-run, one-sided advantage which would harm others. This inward face is also concerned with preserving among Western countries the liberal political values and institutions which they hold in common. The demise of liberal democracy in society after society outside the trilateral geographic sphere has made this aspect of trilateralism's "inward face" seem especially urgent.

Trilateralism's outward face is turned toward the construction of a common approach to the needs and demands of the poorer nations, and the coordination of defense policies and of policies toward such highly politicized issues as nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and aerial hijacking, and such highly politicized geographic areas as the Middle East or Southern Africa. Once again this means abstention from measures conducive to one-sided advantage, such as the sale of nuclear-fuel reprocessing plants, or departures from common fronts in negotiating with producers of oil or other raw materials. Above all, it means a shared perception of common long-run interests, and a willingness to abjure short-run measures which contradict that common perception.

The ultimate result-to quote Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former Director of the Trilateral Commission-would be "a community of the developed nations." The path to that community, he wrote in this journal three years ago, runs through intensive "regular and ever more formal political consultation" and "common political planning with regard to problems or areas of mutual interest" in order to achieve "a shared political perspective among the governmental bodies of the three [trilateral] units."2 Governor Carter used almost the same language in addressing the Foreign Policy Association last June.


In its core emphasis on a common perspective among a set of national societies which subscribe to the same broad set of political/ethical/economic ideas, trilateralism is frankly and unabashedly ideological. The societies at the three points of the triangle differ considerably among themselves, but they share a relative openness and a relatively high willingness to tolerate dissenting views-in particular, views critical of the state and of its government. In all of them-even Japan, the outlier in this respect-there is a fairly clear-cut separation of the sphere of the state from that of the individual.

These notions, of course, are under widespread attack today-including attacks from some within the trilateral societies. The socialist states (the "Second World") explicitly disavow such ideas as perpetuating a structure of class inequality and of domination both at home and abroad. Government after government in the Third World has also disavowed them-in many instances after initially enshrining them in constitutions and party programs-because opposition came to be seen as inconvenient, and disruptive of the processes by which they consolidated their power. The rhetoric of U.N. debates is still often larded with lip service to liberal ideas, but the resolutions of U.N. bodies such as the General Assembly, the International Labor Organization (ILO) and UNESCO show how much under siege-among governments, at least-these ideas actually are.

Emphasis by trilateralism's spokesmen on openness and toleration domestically is matched by a concern with human rights-particularly political liberties-abroad. Thus Governor Carter called upon the trilateral states to form a "creative partnership [to] take the lead in establishing and promoting basic global standards of human rights." He went on by inference to distinguish questions relating to human rights and adherence to representative democratic forms of government from those relating to the economic system to which a society adheres. Referring by implication to the states of southern Europe in which the Communist Party is potentially a governing party, he stated: "The democratic concert of nations should exclude only those who exclude themselves by the rejection of democracy itself." Politics, not economics, is thus the crucial determinant.

Yet the separation of economics from politics is easier stated than made. In principle at least, a democratic political system rooted in the value of toleration is compatible with an economic structure that leaves only little scope for private ownership of the means of production. But the high degree of centralized state control of the economy thus entailed may not be at all compatible with the kind of openness inherent in the vision of the liberal world economy which is, along with democratic politics, a vital pillar of trilateralism. Societies may wish to sacrifice some values-for example, the efficiency which comes from full participation in the international economy-in order to realize others, such as assured full employment and a radical redistribution of national wealth.3

Different domestic economic structures may also lead to different approaches to the economic demands of the Third World. Stability of supply or assurance of a market may constitute economic goals of a higher priority for a given Western government than lower prices for raw materials imports or a higher degree of mobility for capital. Unity among Western governments in the face of demands from the poorer countries (or, for that matter, from wealthy oil exporters) is thus in practice often difficult to achieve. Statements by persons who argue for (and from) a trilateral frame of reference-by the Trilateral Commission, by Governor Carter, or, for that matter, by Secretary of State Kissinger-are often ambivalent or even internally contradictory when it comes to North-South relations. "We [the 'industrial democracies'] should regularly consult and work in close parallel in major international negotiations and conferences. . . . [These negotiations] can achieve much more if the industrial democracies approach them with a clear and coherent purpose," Kissinger said in an address to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London last June. But a few lines later he supplied what by now, in all such general pronouncements, have become virtually obligatory assurances: "Cooperation among developed countries is not confrontation between North and South, as is often alleged. The fact is that a responsible development policy is possible only if the industrial democracies pursue realistic goals with conviction, compassion, and coordination." Thus, a primary reason for Northern unity is to be able to negotiate more effectively with the South; but such pursuit of common policies need not imply confrontation. Of course this is true, provided the united front encounters no opposition. But when opposition arises, a bloc by any other name still behaves like a bloc regarding those across the negotiating table. This is not to say that blocs are never desirable. It is to say that trilateral rhetoric (like most rhetoric) is sometimes disingenuous.

A final area for shared trilateral concern, and for trilateral coordination of policies, is security. The original links between the United States and Western Europe and the United States and Japan were shaped by the security concerns of the cold-war period. In an era of détente they still exist, their form expressed in the treaties which extend the American nuclear umbrella across the Atlantic and the Pacific, their content, however, altered in several important respects. One respect is the awkwardness and vague sense of embarrassment which increasing numbers of Japanese public figures feel called upon to express regarding the continuation of an explicit military relationship with the United States when memories of Indochina-and the American use of Japanese bases to pursue an Asian war opposed by the overwhelming majority of the Japanese people-are still fresh, and images of thralldom to Lockheed are newly evoked. Japanese sensitivities are reflected in the delicate phrasing of Secretary Kissinger's IISS speech. "Security is the bedrock of all that we [the 'industrial democracies'] do," he said. "Today our collective security-and the U.S.-Japanese relationship-continue to be essential for global stability." These same Japanese sensitivities have prevented the Trilateral Commission from undertaking any work focused directly on security: the Commission's work proceeds on the basis of consensus statements, and on security issues trilateral consensus would be too difficult to obtain.

No similar awkwardness or embarrassment characterizes the security relationship between the United States and Western Europe. In this sphere, by contrast, assessments of threat and of mutual need are more or less in harmony on both sides of the Atlantic. Where differences exist, they pertain to non-military aspects of the relationship between the West and the U.S.S.R. and its allies-the appropriate terms for economic credits, the degree of risk entailed in the transfer of some types of technology, and the like. The United States has also diverged from the European members of NATO over the assessment of mutual interests in the case of threats to international peace originating outside Europe, such as the Middle East. Fear of Arab boycott, not of Soviet military response, led the West Europeans severely to limit American abilities to operate from their territories in support of Israel during the October 1973 War.


Differences in perception of security interests between the Americans and, respectively, the Europeans and the Japanese, and the fact that no security linkages of any sort tie the latter pair to each other, expose one of the most serious shortcomings in the notion of trilateralism-the gap between the vision of rough symmetry contained in the trilateral model and the drastic differences in interests and in roles which in fact exist, and are likely to continue, among the supposed trilateral partners. The United States is a superpower with global interests and military forces capable of supporting them at virtually any point on the globe. At the other end of the spectrum is Japan-a state with worldwide economic interests but one that is scarcely a military power even in the North Asian region. (And even Japan's economic involvements are substantially concentrated in Asia.)

Western Europe, of course, is not really an entity: those West European states which are members of the European Community retain substantial freedom of action even in the economic sphere, not to mention the military and political spheres. None is really more than a regional power. Both the United Kingdom and France possess small but relatively potent nuclear forces. Each retains a few of the vestiges of past empire by virtue of special relationships with some of its former colonies. But each is overshadowed for many purposes by the Federal Republic of Germany, whose economic strength and large conventional forces on the Central Front make it the natural European pillar of the Atlantic Alliance. For many reasons, however-not the least of them historical-the Federal Republic cannot, de facto, be the European pole of the trilateral design. Thus there is no really effective European pole. The Community's formal functions are too limited. The nearest thing to a common voice for "Europe" on most of the politically sensitive global issues is the semiannual summit meetings of heads of government or the somewhat more frequent meetings of Ministers of Foreign Affairs. Because of the need to find a low (if not the lowest) common denominator, however, these meetings rarely move beyond the level of principle. Every month the Directors of Political Affairs of the nine foreign ministries meet informally to consider political issues with important ramifications beyond Europe. Yet, as its composition makes clear, this so-called Davignon Committee (named for its Belgian instigator) is at best a means of sometimes energizing and supplying direction to national bureaucracies.

For security affairs, especially, the real loci for decisions remain the separate national capitals of the nine member-states of the Community. NATO (or its so-called "Euro-group") is the forum in which these national decisions are ratified. On the most important economic issues, "decisions" are the result of a complex interaction among Community institutions, private economic interests, and the nine member-governments. But the more highly politicized an issue, such as credits for the U.S.S.R. or dealings with oil-producing states, the more likely it is that the separate national governments will remain central to the decision process. Yet these are issues for which centralization of decision may be highly desirable. And they are among the issues regarding which proponents of trilateralism would seek to present a united front.

There is thus a substantial asymmetry in decision-making ability among the governmental bodies at the three points of the triangle. Washington is not a capital ordinarily praised for either the speed or the coherence of its decisions, but compared to the laborious, consensual "make-no-waves" style which prevails in Tokyo, or the painful, lowest-common-denominator approach characteristic of the Brussels Nine, the U.S. government seems almost Jovian. This asymmetry in decision-making ability further exacerbates the differences in interests and roles which set the United States off from its trilateral partners, and which, indeed, frequently make the notion of partnership scarcely more than an ornament to commencement addresses or campaign speeches.

Such speeches, moreover, are more a staple in the American rhetorical diet than in that of the Europeans or Japanese. Trilateralism as the expression of a set of international relationships is very much an American invention. The Trilateral Commission was born and nurtured in the United States. Although the Commission has enlisted the effective participation in its deliberations of a number of outstanding Europeans and Japanese, the notion of trilateralism is not one which many of them are likely to emphasize except when speaking at clubby international meetings. At home the evocation of nationalism (or, in Europe-sometimes-"Europeanism") still gets the applause. This is not surprising: the more powerful tend more easily to speak of partnership with the less powerful than vice versa. Their ease comes from the fact that the term "partnership" often conveys different meanings. To the small (or the less powerful), partnership implies tying down the big-routinizing their behavior-so the big will dependably meet their needs. To the big, however, solidarity among partners too often means solidarity behind the largest and strongest partner. This is likely to be the case particularly when the largest and strongest also happens to have the easiest time making decisions and framing proposals for what it hopes will become common policies.

Washington's habitual view of effective trilateralism-no matter what the administration or how "good" its intentions-tends to be one of effective support for American positions from the Europeans and the Japanese. This is not an easy habit to break. That it is not-and the Europeans and Japanese are aware it is not-explains the jaundiced European and Japanese reaction to Secretary of State Kissinger's famous "Year of Europe (and Japan)" speech of April 1973. They had heard such rhetoric before-and had observed the results.

There is another important difference in the evocation of trilateralism by Americans and by Europeans and Japanese. In the United States-among elites, at any rate-trilateralism has become almost the consensus position on foreign policy. Over the past several years, Democrats have made much of the alleged unilateralism and disregard for "the allies" by the diplomacy of the first Nixon Administration. But if there have been such sins in the past, they have been more than expiated by such gestures as President Ford making Japan the locus of his first official trip abroad, or by Secretary Kissinger's pilgrimages to the last several annual OECD ministerial meetings. President Ford's fulsome statements at the Western summits of Rambouillet and San Juan and many of Kissinger's recent speeches could have been lifted from the pages of Trialogue, the Trilateral Commission's quarterly bulletin. The overt America-first nationalism articulated and acted upon in 1971-72 is a chapter embarrassing to recall. In this respect, the Ford Administration and its Democratic challenger, Governor Carter, are as one.

Even during the dark days (or brave days, depending upon one's viewpoint) of July and August 1971, relations with Western Europe and Japan never became issues of controversy in American domestic politics. What disagreement there was focused upon tactics, not principles. Moreover, the disagreement was among elites. Neither the principles nor the tactics of these relationships are issues which command mass attention in the United States. The public approves (and is generally bored by) the principles, and it scarcely understands the tactics. By contrast, relations with the United States have been an issue of principle-and a controversial issue-in the domestic politics of Japan and of a number of West European states. Typically, the parties of the Center and of the moderate Right have used their American linkages as a rallying point for their own supporters, while those of the Left and sometimes of the far Right have opposed-often vehemently-the notion of concert with Washington (and Wall Street). These domestic political differences have been reflected in the party affiliations of Europeans and Japanese who have accepted membership in the Trilateral Commission. Only in the United Kingdom and in the Federal Republic of Germany have close relations with the United States-more or less continuously, and for all major parties-been an unquestioned principle of policy. Relations with Japan, of course, have not been an issue in the politics of any European country, just as relations with Western Europe are not an issue in Japanese politics. That leg of the triangle is too unimportant to be divisive. Whether for proponents or opponents, it is the American connection that counts.


Will it "count" a decade from now? Should it? For what purposes? These are questions which governments and prospective governments in Europe and Japan, as well as any administration in Washington, must ponder. And they must also consider what is, or should be, the likely future of trilateralism, as distinguished from U.S.-Europe and U.S.-Japan linkages.

As a start toward suggesting tentative answers to these questions, some general observations about what trilateralism is and is not might be useful. First and most obvious (although not always obvious in trilateral rhetoric), trilateralism is not an end in itself, but an approach and a process-one way of organizing a part of international society to cope with some international problems. The reason for wishing to create a genuine partnership linking together the "industrial democracies" is for the goals which thereby might be achieved and the values which thus might be realized, not for the intrinsic satisfactions (although they undoubtedly exist) of transacting business among the more or less like-minded members of a more or less comfortable club. In drawing conclusions about trilateralism, therefore, one must evaluate it both as an arena for problem-solving and as a mode of international organization, and ask what sort of international problems-over the short- and medium-range future-will best be approached from the framework of a North American-West European-Japanese partnership.

It goes without saying that the intense consultation and common political planning envisioned by the trilateralists-the process of "trialogue"-would be useful to prevent any one of the poles from doing mischief to either of the others. In such a framework, the "Nixon shocks" of 1971 would have been impossible-indeed, because of prior monetary and trading adjustments, not necessary. The same would be true regarding sudden changes in the European Community's internal regulations designed, in fact, to keep out American farm products or Japanese automobiles. Similarly unnecessary would have been the crisis reactions of late 1973 when each of the three poles of the triangle (and, indeed, separate states within the European pole) seemed to attempt to alleviate its energy problem at the expense of the others. A common approach to problems that are both common and uniquely (or predominantly) those of the industrialized market-economy states is, of course, an appropriate goal for trilateralism and one which, by definition, will continue to be appropriate. What will change, however, will be the list of problems which are more or less common only to these societies.

Commonality and uniqueness are not, it should be said, limiting criteria. Certainly there are issues scarcely confined to the industrial democracies for which a common trilateral approach-provided it is the right approach-would be highly desirable. Energy policy, some aspects of relations with the poorest countries, and some aspects of relations with the industrialized Communist states, are among these issues. Regarding each, the trilateral countries share identifiable common interests. What matters, therefore, is not whether or not they behave as a bloc in negotiating with, say, oil exporters, debtor poor countries, or the Warsaw Pact, but how they use the leverage which comes with bloc cohesion. Trilateralism may be a retreat into semi-isolation (a kind of severing of some existing linkages), a closing of ranks against the oncoming hordes of the poor and the demanding (who may or may not be the same), or an attempt to forge a new kind of collective leadership that will transcend bloc lines but use bloc interests, defined in the longest range terms, as a point of departure. Whether or not trilateralism is a suitable means of moving toward a more desirable world order depends, of course, on which of these or other lines the leaders of the trilateral societies choose to follow.

The question of whether or not trilateral cohesion is desirable, and in what circumstances, may be somewhat beside the point, however. For over the next decade, as the shared characteristics which set the trilateral states off from the other members of the community of nation-states become less distinct, trilateral unity may well grow more difficult to achieve. It is likely, indeed, that every dimension by which the members of the trilateral club are now defined will become blurred, with a corresponding diffusion of interests. For example, the ranks of the industrialized countries will include not merely the democratic, market-economy nations (the trilateral states) on the one hand and the Soviet Union and its East European allies on the other. By the period 1985-90, countries like Mexico, Brazil, India, Iran and Saudi Arabia will probably have joined the "advanced nation club" for a number of the functions of that club-the governance of trade relations, the organization of international monetary affairs, the regulation of foreign direct investment, etc. At the same time, they are not likely to be representative democracies. Whether or not the next decade will also see the emergence of more sharply demarcated regional economic blocs and regional spheres of influence (another dilution of trilateralism, incidentally), the much greater involvement of these non-trilateral states in the international economic system will erode the qualitative difference, measured both by the intensity and the scope of economic interactions, which is one of the strongest glues of trilateralism.

Not only are these and other new industrial powers not likely to be liberal democracies, but they are likely, at least for rhetorical purposes, to espouse an ideology which emphasizes their differences from the present trilateral countries. Thus the very fact of their presence for many functions within the ranks of the industrialized states will change the nature-by blurring the edges-of the present North-South confrontation. That confrontation might further be altered over the next decade by the Soviet Union and its European allies becoming more identified with "Northern" positions on North-South issues, much as they would choose not to. Presently, despite their relatively small contributions to economic development efforts, the industrialized Communist states for the most part escape the overt wrath of the poor countries because of their outspoken championship of the anti-colonial cause, particularly in regard to the African campaign against the white regimes in Southern Africa, and of the Arabs against Israel. For a variety of reasons (among them the likelihood of substantial movement toward a resolution of these political issues), it seems unlikely that a decade hence such issues will divide East from West in the eyes of the South. With less to gain-as a bloc-in the way of political and military support from Moscow, poor Southern governments are likely to increase their demands for economic concessions from the relatively rich industrialized Communist countries. And the latter may find themselves coordinating their approach to the poor countries with Western governments and Western financial institutions.

Alongside these tendencies which are likely to lead to a blurring of the characteristics which distinguish the trilateral countries, a number of issues are likely to be a source of division among them. Energy, for example, has been a highly divisive issue among the trilateral countries since the Arab boycott of 1973-74 and the consequent efforts by all of the oil-importing states-the United States, despite its avowed disapproval of "bilateral deals," included-to enter into special arrangements with individual oil exporters that will assure them stability of supply. The International Energy Agency (IEA), formed in the aftermath of the boycott in order to coordinate and channel Western energy policies and to promote the formation of a united front in relations with OPEC, has yet to be tested by adversity. There are substantial differences in supply position, in domestic energy policy (or its absence), and in relationship to the Arab-Israeli dispute which, particularly in a time of crisis, would all work to separate the United States from its IEA partners.

Oil is undoubtedly the source of most of the present and potential divisions among the trilateral governments over energy, but nuclear policy has-and is likely to continue to have-important divisive effects as well. U.S. relations with Germany and France have recently been strained over whether to accede to the wish of countries buying nuclear reactors also to buy the means of reprocessing or enriching nuclear fuel. The United States has opposed such sales on the grounds that they make easier the acquisition of nuclear weapons; the Germans and the French, on the other hand, seem to believe that only by exporting complete nuclear fuel cycles can they compete with American nuclear salesmanship, and they seem more confident of the ability of the international community to provide safeguards against the diversion of materials for weapons purposes.

This issue is, in a sense, the tip of an iceberg whose base is the whole framework of nuclear energy policy, involving factors such as relative quantities of resources devoted both to nuclear research and to investments in nuclear generating capacity, environmental degradation, potential hazards to health and to life itself, and the like. By the end of a decade, the particular question of the sale of reprocessing or enrichment facilities may no longer be contentious: the nuclear suppliers, whose numbers are likely by then to have grown considerably larger, may have agreed among themselves on restrictive measures, or else the genie of proliferation may be so far out of the bottle as to make the question almost irrelevant in its effects upon the spread of nuclear weapons. But in a climate of greater potential energy scarcity the issue of assured supplies of nuclear fuel may become even more divisive, and may further a process by which the Western states forge close relationships with nations outside the trilateral charmed circle.

Another issue which is likely to continue to be a source of contention among Western governments is their various relationships with the Communist world. The unity of the West when dealing with the Soviet bloc or with China has long been a major American objective. Too often, however, that unity was defined in practice as agreement with U.S. policies and support of U.S. initiatives and programs. Initiatives by others-German Chancellor Willy Brandt's early Ostpolitik, for example, or Canadian policies toward China-are deplored as "out of step."

No matter how sincere an American Administration may be in its desire to conduct relations with the U.S.S.R. on a basis of close coordination among the Western governments, the nature of the strategic relationship between the two superpowers makes it almost impossible to do so. There are issues of vital importance to the two-the management of the central nuclear balance is the most important, but there are others, such as the competition between them in third areas-where, in practice if not in concept, the bilateral forum inevitably comes to dominate any efforts at intra-alliance consultation.

The same is true of U.S. relations with the People's Republic of China. Coordination with Japan is of course desirable. But in practice there are crosscutting but reinforcing pressures which make coordination very difficult. For Japan, China policy is above all a matter of domestic politics, subject to all the inertia, and, at the same time, short-range opportunism characteristic of those politics. For the United States, on the other hand, China policy is intimately related to policy toward the Soviet Union. Both these factors work against an American China policy conducted in close harmony with Tokyo.

This is not to say that either policy toward the U.S.S.R. or policy toward China need be conducted with as little seeming regard for the sensitivities (if not the actual interests) of allies as that which characterized the Nixon-Kissinger approach of 1970-73. That approach was aimed as much at circumventing the American bureaucracy as at keeping allies at arm's length. Much more effective interallied consultation is clearly possible. But the gap between consultation and true coordination of approaches and policies is most unlikely to close.

That gap-present in virtually every sphere of policy, not merely in policies toward the Soviet Union and China-is ultimately the reason why there is and will continue to be less to trilateralism than meets the ear. Clearly it is worthwhile for the various governments of North America, Western Europe and Japan to have cordial and extensive working relationships with each other, both in order to forestall harmful actions taken in ignorance of the needs and wishes of the others and to promote the kind of cooperation which takes advantage of the complementarity of their social-economic systems and their long-range interests. Among the governments involved, there is no disagreement-at the level of principle-that this should be so. Divergence comes at the level of practice. And the likelihood is that over the next decade the forces which make for a sharper demarcation between the trilateral countries on the one hand and the rest of the world on the other will grow weaker rather than stronger.

Certainly the trilateral nations should not want those forces to grow stronger. For that would mean deeper divisions along the two principal current fault-lines of international politics-West/East and North/South-with all the tension, acerbity, inefficiency, and potential for ultimate disaster that such a deepening division implies. To the degree that this occurs, the First World-as well as the Second and Third-will be worse off. To the extent that this does not occur and the fault lines are blurred rather than emphasized, the notion of "a partnership between North America, Western Europe and Japan" will continue to be largely rhetorical-an acknowledgment of shared values and expectations, rather than of closely coordinated policies.


Yet the importance of shared values should not be underestimated. They are a fragile core which the trilateral countries must strive to preserve. Most of all they include a devotion to human rights. In the industrialized democracies, where basic human economic needs have mostly been met, "human rights" connotes above all civil rights and political liberties such as freedom of speech and of assembly, freedom from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, guarantees of effective political representation, and freedom to criticize one's own society, its institutions, officials and politicians, without fear of repressive action either by the state or by other citizens. These are rights which in most of the globe's polities have been subordinated to other values-sometimes the provision of basic economic needs, sometimes merely the maintenance in power of a particular set of elites. Such rights will surely come under attack, as inconvenient or worse, by political parties and even by governments in some of the trilateral countries. Over the next decade or so all the industrialized democracies may experience tensions in their politics which will make it seem expedient to abandon some or all of their present political liberties.

When such attacks occur, persons, parties, and governments in other societies committed to the same values must reinforce one another and speak out. When critical voices in one country are silenced in the name of expedience, authorities in other countries who would similarly abuse political power find it easier to do so. "Speaking out" depends in good measure upon the unimpeded flow of persons back and forth across national frontiers and upon the consequent flow of verified information regarding domestic arrangements within other societies. It also depends on networks of official and private institutions, such as the Council of Europe and its Human Rights Commission, the International Commission of Jurists, Amnesty International, and P.E.N. The first of these institutions focuses, of course, entirely upon Europe; the others look mainly beyond the Western countries because the most serious violations of human rights occur beyond them. That focus would change, however, if the locus of violations were to change. The very existence of such institutions is one guarantee that it will not.

This guarantee might well be strengthened and formalized. Just as it has been proposed that the trilateral countries-and as many others as possible-might enter into binding obligations regarding the punishment or extradition of hijackers and terrorists, so they should also consider entering into formal and binding obligations regarding the preservation of human rights. A framework for such an obligation already exists in the form of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the covenants designed to give it effect. In recent years, however, application of the Declaration has become so highly politicized as to create an Orwellian situation in which some states most flagrant in their disregard of human rights triumphantly proclaim their devotion to it, while some others most earnestly seeking to protect human rights, such as the United States, have refused to ratify its covenants because of the highly selective way in which U.N. organs have interpreted them. In particular, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights is scarcely an effective or impartial monitor of abuses.

It is time, therefore, to consider the creation of a new institution, patterned instead after the Human Rights Commission of the Council of Europe, working under a charter similar to the European Convention on Human Rights, with guaranteed access and subpoena power and recognized standing in both national and international courts of law, and with the power to recommend sanctions which governments would undertake to enforce against either lesser officials acting on their own, or, collectively, against violator governments. Such an institution would be outside the framework of the United Nations, but its express purpose would be to make effective the basic principles of the Universal Declaration. It would be open to any state willing to incur the rather far-reaching obligations of membership.

Should such a new institution be created, its membership would surely include most-one hopes all-of the trilateral states. For the values it would uphold are their bedrock values. One way to create it would be simply to enlarge the European human rights system and allow others to participate in its Convention, its Commission, and its Court. The European system has been highly effective in a number of instances. Enlargement would make it more so. For example, the effort to restrain abuse of human rights by the Greek military junta would have been far more effective had the United States been a participating member of the European enforcement system.

Such a new human rights institution would not-and certainly need not-depend for its effectiveness upon collaboration and coordination by its member-states in other spheres of national and international policy. In the years ahead, as we have already noted, such coordination is likely to be no more effective than it is today, probably less so. A frequent assumption within most trilateralist statements is that the mutual protection of the core values held in common by the trilateral societies depends upon their genuine "partnership" in all the other important spheres of international policy. If such a linkage in fact exists, it is only very loose: clearly, a state subjected to physical attack from abroad cannot be expected to place the protection of human rights and political liberties high on its agenda for action. But, short of this limiting case, the mutual protection of these rights and liberties depends not upon policy coordination in other spheres but upon the elaboration and strengthening of the informal and formal networks mentioned above. If the will exists-and it surely does-this can be done regardless of how varied and diverse are the other policy arenas a society chooses to enter for the achievement of other goals.


In his address to the Foreign Policy Association, Governor Carter spoke of the need for the Western societies to learn from one another in such prosaic spheres as health care, urban planning, mass transportation, and measures to counteract unemployment, rootlessness and alienation. In the short run, such sharing of ideas and techniques may be the most valuable-because they are the most concrete-achievements of trilateralism. In the long run, it may be the effective protection of rights and liberties. The "partnership" about which he also spoke is already an accomplished fact-provided one is prepared to use the rhetoric of trilateralism to connote a complex set of particular relationships that link together the several societies of North America, Western Europe, and Japan in a variety of different ways for a variety of different purposes. Only the triangle, in all its elegant simplicity, is absent. It is unlikely ever to appear.


1 It should be noted that this article is about "trilateralism" as one way of organizing a portion of the international community for the conduct of public policy; it is not about the Trilateral Commission as such, nor about particular statements on policy issues made under its auspices.

2 "U.S. Foreign Policy: The Search for Focus," Foreign Affairs, July 1973, p. 724.

3 Indeed, one reason-perhaps the principal reason-why the Trilateral Commission has been able to attract so little participation from the leaders of organized labor in any of the trilateral countries is labor's hostility to the vision of an international economy in which unemployment may be the price of the fact that labor is not in practice as free to move across national frontiers as goods, capital or technology, the other factors of production.

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  • Richard H. Ullman, Director of the 1980s Project of the Council on Foreign Relations and Professor of International Affairs at Princeton University, is the author of Anglo-Soviet Relations, 1917-1921 (3 vols.) and other works.
  • More By Richard H. Ullman