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It was a strong performance but not quite enough to erase the impression that Reagan is losing the initiative to his Soviet rival. For months before the President's trip, West European polls have been telling a distressing story. Whether the surveys are taken in Britain, West Germany, France, Italy or various combinations of countries, they have yielded consistent results: more West Europeans are looking to Gorbachev than to Reagan for leadership toward disarmament. In a poll sponsored by the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter and published last week, residents of nine European nations were asked which superpower leader was working harder to stop the arms race: 32% said Gorbachev, vs. only 11% who chose Reagan (44% saw no difference).
As the Venice summit promptly made clear, Reagan's efforts to exert his leadership are severely handicapped. Europeans readily acknowledge that in arms negotiations American military power far overshadows that of any other ! ally: indeed, U.S. defense spending ($289 billion last year) is more than half the size of Britain's entire gross domestic product ($547 billion in 1986). But in economic matters, the crippling U.S. budget and trade deficits cause America to appear as a supplicant rather than a confident leader. The $170 billion shortfall in trade last year made the U.S. the world's largest debtor nation. A Western diplomat in Venice said bluntly, "The strategy of the U.S. at the summit does not take into account its declining economic power."
Venice afforded most allied leaders their first close-up look at Reagan since the Iran-contra scandal broke, and they were distressed by what they saw. The 76-year-old President appeared visibly older and slower, physically and mentally. He dismayed several heads of government by reading from index cards during informal gatherings, something he had not done at previous summits. Compared with his performance at the Tokyo summit last year, said a French diplomat, the President "seemed much less at ease, much more hesitant."
To be sure, Reagan was not the only weakened leader in Venice. Wits went too far in talking about a "lame-duck summit." West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl was re-elected in January, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was on the verge of winning a third term, and French President Francois Mitterrand has recouped his popularity. But Prime Ministers Amintore Fanfani of Italy and Yasuhiro Nakasone of Japan are due to step down soon, and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney is in severe political trouble at home. No wonder that their deliberations in a 17th century monastery on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, hard by the Grand Canal, came to be christened the "Bland Canal" summit.
The only touch of grandeur was in the security precautions. Venice's famed gondolas were banned from the quays around St. Mark's Square for four days, and the waters off San Giorgio swarmed with what looked like an invasion force of police boats. Police were so omnipresent, their automatic weapons conspicuously at the ready, that tourists and Venetians alike grumbled that the city was under virtual occupation by armed men.