Washington — Ronald Reagan's foreign policy will be conservative -- but just how conservative will depend greatly on whom he appoints to key positions. This seems to be the conventional wisdom in Washington as Mr. Reagan's advisers set about preparing their man for the formidable tasks of dealing with, among other things, the Soviet Union, the West European allies, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and oil supplies from the Gulf.
Some of the government's career foreign policy experts believe that once the new President is briefed, his moves on key foreign policy issues will depart much less radically from Carter administration approaches than it might seem at first glance. Some of them believe in what might be called the "moderating influence of the bureaucracy." Still others believe that the influence of hard realities -- such as the ever-growing US dependence on Arab oil -- will force Reagan at least slightly away from what appears to be a virtually unqualified pro-Israeli Middle East policy.
On the vital issues of defense spending, arms control, and relations with major nations -- the Soviet Union and China in particular -- Reagan already appeared during the election campaign to moderate his views. He stopped talking about nuclear superiority over the Soviets and started talking about a "margin of safety." He began emphasizing his interest in world peace.
But Reagan foreign policy advisers are widely divided into what might be called moderate, conservative, and extremely conservative groups. No one is entirely sure at this point who will come out on top. Most speculation about a future Reagan cabinet, however, envisages the President-elect selecting men for the most prominent foreign affairs positions who are conservative but experienced and pragmatic, rather than ideological, in their approach.
The New Republic magazine reported three weeks ago, for instance, a consensus among Reagan advisers that George P. Shultz, president of the Bechtel Corporation and chairman of Reagan's foreign policy coordinating committee, might make the best Secretary of State in a Reagan administration. Mr. Shultz held three cabinet posts under President Nixon and is reported to have developed good relations with France's President Giscard d'Estaing and West Germany's Chancellor Helmut Schmidt in the days when the two West European leaders served as finance ministers.
The appointment of Shultz could prove reassuring to the West Europeans, particularly when one recalls that Reagan once gave the impression on a television program that he had only the vaguest idea who Giscard d'Estaing was. A Shultz appointment might also be reassuring to Saudi Arabia. Shultz's engineering corporation has been engaged in a 20-year project to build an entire city in that Middle East country.
Another name on the speculation list for Secretary of State: General Alexander Haig, former NATO commander.
But moderation notwithstanding, it should be noted that no matter whom Reagan appoints, his foreign policy will undoubtedly mean significant change. Perhaps most important, the thrust of Reagan statements on defense and arms control points to an intensfied US-Soviet arms race before significant arms control talks can be reopened with the Soviet Union.
But Reagan may have some problems on this issue with the America's West European allies because the allies have tended to stress that arms buildups be combined with arms control.
Reagan appears to be more willing than President Carter has been to confront Soviet influence in the third world with American military aid and, possibly, with American military force.
This tendency derives in part from one of the most fundamental Reagan-Carter differences: Reagan seems to see Soviet and Cuban moves behind most developments adverse to the United States in the developing world. President Carter has tended to focus more on injustices and social and economic inequalities as root causes for unrest.
Reagan wants to encourage free enterprise and investment in, rather than aid to, those countries. And while he may not end up bolstering Latin American dictatorships as much as some fear, Reagan is certainly likely to be less critical of their human rights violations than was President Carter.