This is a good time to remind foreign-policy observers in the United States and diplomats overseas that they need not wring their hands in despair over the things being said on the American hustings during this current American political season.
If one did try to forecast the future of US foreign policy from current speeches, one would have to assume that a Reagan administration taking office in January of next year would immediately and drastically alter the course of US policies toward the outer world. In fact, there might be some changes in declaratory policy, but probably negligible, if any, changes in actual operating policies.
In one important respect Republican candidate Ronald Reagan has already modified his position. In frequent earlier speeches he seemed to be indicating that if elected he would restore diplomatic relations with Taiwan, thus ending diplomatic relations with mainland China. This would mean a reversal of the reopening of relations with mainland China, which dates from President Nixon's trip to Peking in 1972.
But Mr. Reagan abandoned that position shortly before heading for Detroit to accept the Republican nomination. He would not change US policy toward China. He would, on the contrary, continue the new policy that was launched by Mr. Nixon, carried forward by President Ford, and advanced a further step by President Carter.
There is a question about future China policy regardless of who wins the November election. At the present time the United States extends most-favored-nation trade treatment to China, but not to the Soviet Union, and has begun selling to China certain high-technology equipment that is on the banned list for the Soviets. But the United States does not sell actual weapons to either country. This ban on weapons is left over from the original Nixon-Kissinger policy of being "evenhanded" between China and the Soviet Union, playing no favorites.
The first breaching of the "evenhanded" approach dates from Soviet adventures in Angola, Ethiopia, and South Yemen. Further breaching of that approach camefollowing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Any new Soviet adventure would probably cause still further breaching, perhaps even decisive abandonment of that approach.
But it is Moscow, not the outcome of the US elections, that will decide that matter. Whether the next president be Mr. Carter or Mr. Reagan there would certainly be a further drawing together of Washington and Peking in the event of any new Soviet move that seemed to threaten Western interests, particularly in the Persian Gulf area.
The Middle East is the one place where a change from Mr. Carter to Mr. Reagan at the White House might make some real difference in operating policies. Mr. Carter is doing his best to resist Israel's present expansion of Jewish settlements into the Arab lands of the West Bank and into East Jerusalem. Both Mr. Reagan and independent candidate John Anderson have endorsed the full Israeli position, or at least appeared to do so. On the rhetorical record, both Reagan and Anderson are firmly pro-Zionist.
If either Mr. Reagan or Mr. Anderson happened to be the next president of the United States it is possible that operating policies would be less "evenhanded" between Israel and the Arabs than those policies have been under Mr. Carter.
However, even toward Israel there might be less change than the obvious Reagan-Anderson bidding for Jewish votes would seem to indicate. If the United States went over from its longstanding effort to promote a fair peace between Israel and the Arabs to a full pro-Israel position there would immediately be a further distancing between Washington and the oil-producing Arabs. The Arabs would tend to look to Moscow for help. US access to Middle East oil would be jeopardized.
Would a Reagan or Anderson administration actually take the risk of jeopardizing that oil supply in order to please Prime Minister Begin?
The idea of an "evenhanded" attitude toward Israel and the Arabs dates from the Eisenhower administration and John Foster Dulles. The previous Truman administration had been as solidly pro-Israel as the Reagan-Anderson position is now. Since Eisenhower, the official US position has been, or at least tried to be, fair to the Arabs.
But there is plenty of sentiment in the upper reaches of the Republican Party for hewing to that old Eisenhower-Dulles line. A Reagan or Anderson in office would be subject to those influences.
The Chinese were openly disturbed by earlier Reagan remarks about China policy. They warned that a re-recognition of Taiwan by the US would mean immediate expulsion of the US Embassy from Peking. But presumably they have calmed down now after being reassured that Mr. Reagan would follow the existing policy line.
The Soviets have been more relaxed about US campaign rhetoric from longer knowledge and study of US politics. As far back as 1960 the Kremlin had noticed a difference between campaign rhetoric and operating policy. It is said that at a Politburo meeting during the Nixon-Kennedy campaign the "comrades" were told to remember that "while Democrats talk peace, they made all recent US wars, and while Republicans talk war, they get the country out of the wars the Democrats start."
A current version of that kind of Soviet wisdom was the remark in this campaign of Moscow's top expert on the US, Georgi Arbatov. He is reported as commenting that "Ronald Reagan says bad things about us and President Carter does them."
Moscow's favorite US president was Richard Nixon. The Soviets probably would prefer a Reagan victory in November on the assumption that it might bring Mr. Nixon and Henry Kissinger back into White House councils.
Israel is the only foreign country that might make an active effort in the US campaign, as it did in 1972 when Israel's ambassador, Yitzak Rabin, invited American Jews to "remember our friends," meaning Richard Nixon. The government in Israel makes no secret today of its distrust and dislike of Mr. Carter. It will presumably do its best to encourage American Jews to desert their habit of voting Democrat and support either Mr. Reagan or Mr. Anderson.
Campaign rhetoric would sound as though a Reagan administration would be more overtly anti-Soviet than is the present Carter administration, and would move faster to increase the US military posture. But it is doubtful that a Reagan victory would make much practical difference in these respects. Congress, not the White House, fixes military spending levels. And there is no reason to think that the advice Mr. Reagan is getting on foreign policy would make him any more anti-Soviet than is Mr. Carter. The chances are that on arms spending and attitude toward Moscow -- it is Moscow that will make the difference.