Foreign Policy: What’s to Be Done?

What kind of strategy would respond to the international situation many Americans find so ominous today? A few guidelines, at least, can be useful, first about preconditions for effective policy, then about priorities.

One precondition is the need to minimize discontinuity. The American system of government, with its concentration on the president, and the absence of a permanent bureaucracy at the top, is always prone to sudden changes of course. When presidents do not make it to a second term, the risk of hairpin turns increases. When a new president also is of a different party from his predecessor’s, and there is a big shift in Congress, the temptation to repudiate the past and to put Creation in the present is overwhelming. But nothing is more destructive of confidence abroad, more dangerous and ultimately more confusing at home. It is a way both of raising excessive hopes in the electorate, and of telling many voters to burn what they once adored.

In the not so long term, this aggravates the voters’ distrust of politics and politicians, and injects cynicism where trust should be, apathy where what John Stuart Mill called “the invigorating effect of freedom” ought to be felt. Many of the new initiatives, announced not because they are part of a well thought through policy, but because they demonstrate the desire for novelty and symbolize the new priorities, are likely either to backfire (remember the early Carter pressure on Bonn over the German-Brazilian deal, or Carter’s first proclamations about human rights), or to go out of control (would even Mrs. Kirkpatrick and Mr. Lefever be happy with a perfectly likely epidemic of right-wing coups aiming at establishing or at hardening regimes that practice an “average” rate of torture?).

Allies and adversaries alike are unhelpfully upset; insofar as one of our goals is to induce more predictable behavior from our foes, our own unpredictability entails a change of signals, the throwing of new wrenches into the negotiations (as in the case of the Law of the Sea Conference), the raising of new conditions, the failure to pick up dangling threads (as the sad story of SALT II since 1972 shows). Allies keep worrying about the wondrous new initiatives we will invent, the new slogans we will float, and above all the new demands we will make. Two months after the inauguration of the new president, we have already had a flap over the neutron bomb, turned the tiny country of El Salvador into a “litmus test” of alliance solidarity, been told that we should not exaggerate its importance—and failed to respond clearly to the allies’ own concerns about the direction of the relations between Washington and Moscow.

A frequent consequence of this urge to be different is the unproductive detour. Mr. Carter’s attempt to exorcise the weighty ghost of Henry Kissinger led to the doomed March 1977 arms reduction proposals to the Soviet Union, and to a clumsily improvised search for a comprehensive Middle East settlement …

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