Washington — President Carter's reaction to Afghanistan marks another apparent turn toward traditional postwar foreign policy, with heavy emphasis once again being placed on countering Soviet power.
Officials say this does not mean that the agenda of the early Carter administration -- such as arms control, nuclear nonproliferation, and human rights -- will be completely discarded.
But it is likely to mean, they say, that the administration will more often than in the past give such considerations less priority in the face of a need to support allies and cooperate with other nations against the Soviets.
All of these elements can be seen in the current US offers to help arm Afghanistan's neighbor, Pakistan, whose record on human rights and nuclear weapons building has not been good by Carter administration standards.
At the outset of his term, President Carter and his advisers criticized previous administrations for an alleged excessive preoccupation with US-Soviet competition and an inclination to view every crisis in terms of US- Soviet confrontation. The Carter approach has been to look more carefully at the internal factors in each situation and to count more heavily on the success of American good will, technology, and economic assistance, as opposed to the use or sale of American arms.
President Carter's more optimistic view of the world reached a peak in his address at commencement exercises at the University of Notre Dame May 22, 1977.
"Being confident of our own future," Mr. Carter said, "we are now free of that inordinate fear of communism which once led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in our fear."
Over the past two years, however, Mr. Carter has modified his tendency to try to do things differently in foreign policy and has turned increasingly to well-tried approaches. He has placed more emphasis, for example, on the use of arms sales to traditional allies or to potential opponents of the Soviets, regardless of their types of government, in order to enhance American influence around the world.
Even before the invasion of Afghanistan, the seizure of American hostages at the US Embassy in Tehran appeared to mark a turning point toward a tougher foreign policy. Administration officials who had been advocating such a change all along seemed to be on the ascendancy. Some of them now say that their urging of what they describe as a more realistic, hard-nosed view of the Soviets has been vindicated by the Russian intervention in Afghanistan. They also say this has offered the United States an opportunity to formulate a more coherent and assertive policy toward the Soviet Union and to gather support for such a policy from the American people.
"Afghanistan is finally shaking people into shape," said one administration official.
"We're lucky that we didn't lose more as a result of a rather naive and sophomoric application of foreign policy," this official said. "I think the Soviets have done us a big favor."
But few persons in the administration seem to be arguing for a return to the kind of rigid anti-Soviet posture that characterized the immediate postwar years. It is widely recognized that the world has become more complicated than it was then, with neither of the superpowers able to exert the kind of influence over friends or over small nations that they did then.
And while administration officials have been remarkably united so far behind most of the punitive measures against the Soviets that President Carter announced Jan. 4, there are differing views as to Soviet intentions. Some see the Russians as reacting primarily to the internal situation in Afghanistan, trying to avert defeat at the hands of Muslim rebels for a cause in which they had heavily invested. Other officials place the emphasis on what they see as a Soviet design to use Afghanistan as a stepping stone to the oil and warm waters of the Gulf.
In an appearance on the CBS television program "Face the Nation" Jan. 6, Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher said it was "not very helpful" to talk in terms of embarking on a second cold war against the Soviets.
"We'll have to see in the future how US- Soviet relations work out," Mr. Christopher said. "I don't think it's time to pronounce the death of detente."
What disappoints some of the "hawks" in the administration with a statement such as this, and with the President's Jan. 4 address to the nation, is that they do not reflect any fundamental change of mind. There are lingering doubts among the hawks that Mr. Carter is really willing to use power as they think it should be used.
As they see it, some of the most important questions have yet to be answered. Among them:
* Will the President move to establish an American military presence -- a base or bases -- in the Middle East?
* Will he move to establish a de facto military alliance with China?
* Will he try to supply antitank and antiaircraft weapons to the Muslim rebels in Afghanistan?
When it comes to the first question, the administration seems to be moving toward the increased use of the existing naval and air facilities of a number of countries in and around the Gulf. But it seems to be ruling out the stationing of any large number of American military personnel in the region, except on ships.
As far as the US relationship with China is concerned, officials say increased cooperation and consultation on defense matters, including aid to Pakistan, seem likely.