The first seven-nation economic summit to be held since the end of the Cold War has barely gotten under way, but already it is providing a telling glimpse of how hard it will be for the allies to get along without the fear of the Soviet Bloc to unite them.
Beneath the customary gloss of cosmetic diplomacy, this may go down in history as the Go-Your-Own-Way Summit.
"It's a Go-Your-Own-Way and Do-What-You-Want sort of thing," says Carol A. Brookins, president of World Perspectives Inc., a Washington-based policy research group. "It's as though we're all members of the same family, but it's OK to do as we please anyway."
Previously, the specter of the Soviet bear, and the need for the allies to remain strong in the face of it, usually was enough to jolt the Western powers into concerted action. With that threat fast disappearing, the allies are already finding it hard to make the kinds of political sacrifices that are almost always necessary in order to deal with major problems.
Among the examples of how decisions could be forced in the old days were the Energy Summit in 1979, the Missiles-in-Europe Summit of 1983 and the Dollar-Stabilization Summit of 1986.
But now, with sharp differences on such key issues as trade, the environment and aid to Moscow, and no Soviet threat to unite them, the allies have found a new formula for responding: Draft very broad guidelines and then do as you please--with a minimum of actual concessions.
The United States and Japan already have worked out such an arrangement on allied lending to China. Although Washington technically opposes any resumption of aid to Beijing, U.S. officials signaled that they will look the other way while Tokyo reinstates credits that it cut off last year.
The allies agreed at last year's summit in Paris to suspend aid to China following the Beijing regime's violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations.
"We recognize that there are differences in the interests of individual countries," White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater told reporters. Japan, he noted pointedly, is entitled to make decisions on its bilateral aid programs on its own.
And, as Monday's developments showed, the seven are hammering out similar umbrella agreements.
On aid to the Soviet Union, for example, the seven plan to establish a broad framework that will nominally represent a common approach to the issue. Yet it will also allow each of them to provide aid to whatever countries they wish, and on whatever terms.
That means West Germany will be able to provide massive aid to the Soviet Union immediately, while the United States can hold back until Moscow completes the reforms that Washington believes are needed before the Soviets will be able to absorb the aid funds and President Bush will be able to deal with political opposition from his own right wing.
To some extent, the increased tolerance represents an evolution: With security concerns now visibly diminished, the United States no longer is in a position to demand, and get, whatever it wants from the other leaders.
U.S. officials denied that Washington has lost its influence on international economic issues.
"The United States is still the world leader. . . . We act like the world leader, and we are the world leader," Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady told reporters here Monday.
But there is a growing realization that with the end of the Cold War, and America's own budget problems at home, the United States must take a far more collegial approach in exercising its leadership. That means giving the six other allies more say. And it means the United States must make more concessions than it did before.
All that may not be as worrisome as some doomsayers have portrayed it. Henry Nau, a former National Security Council strategist, argues that with the Cold War finally over, the United States does not need to exercise the power it did in earlier days.
Instead, he argues, under the new, kinder-and-more-collegial alliance, Washington should not need to flex its muscles that much to achieve its long-term goals.
"Power for what?" Nau asks. "We don't need as much power now."
"I think it's important to remember that we all want the same thing," Fitzwater reminded reporters Monday. "When you put those things together, the differences over one or another kind of aid package are relatively minor."
Yet there is a gnawing uneasiness to it all, and not merely because of any possible reduction in U.S. prestige.
One of the advantages of the American era that prevailed during the Cold War years was that, for better or worse, Washington often was able to push the allies into action. Now, unless the allies can learn to subordinate more of their differences, they may find themselves unable to achieve as much as they have in previous years.
The compromise emerging here on global warming, for example, promises to avoid an open split between Europeans who want tougher action and the Bush Administration, which is concerned about the damping effect of strict environmental laws on growth.
Strategists say one reason West Germany broke ranks with Europe on Monday to support the U.S. stance on trade was that Chancellor Helmut Kohl feels indebted to President Bush for supporting West German reunification and, through it, Kohl's own bid for reelection. Bush, in turn, did not seek to block Kohl on the issue of Soviet aid.