Washington — Many of this nation's career foreign affairs expets look to Ronald Reagan for a more coherent and consistent foreign policy than that of the Carter administration.
But these professionals who will stay on in the government long after President Carter is gone warn that President-elect Reagan may be surprised to discover how little he can change in foreign policy.
"You can't make wide swings in foreign policy," said one US State Department expet on European affairs. "In the end, there is a fairly narrow band of options. . . . You're forced to the center."
"I believe he will move more and more toward the center," said Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D) of Washington Nov. 16 on the CBS-TV program "Face the Nation." Senator Jackson is considered a candidate for the posts of secretary of defense or secretary of state in the Reagan administration.
The career men note that some of Mr. Reagan's advisers have advocated greater support for rightwing groups and conservative, authoritarian regimes in Latin America. But they warn that two of the most influential Latin American countries -- oil-producing Mexico and Venezuela -- will oppose this if, in their view, it goes too far.
In Africa, some of the President-elect's advisers seem to want to "tilt" more in favor of South Africa and away from the Carter administration's sympathy for black African nationalist movements. but Africa specialist may say that the continent's influential oil power, Nigeria, is likely to oppose this and even threaten economic sanctions should such a tilt materialize.
Quite a few career foreign policy specialists opposed the election of Ronald Reagan. There were undoubtedly more supporters of President Carter in the State Department in the Nov. 4 election than there were in the population as a whole. But one conviction among career experts, not just in the State Department but also in the Defense Department and other institutions, seems to cut across partly lines: there is a need to restore confidence in American foreign policy and Reagan and his team may be able to provide the consistency that would be required to do this.
"I've got a feeling the Reagan administration will waffle less," said a State Department official who believes that Carter's vacillation over deployment of the neutron warhead to Western Europe and flip-flops over United Nations' votes on Israel did great damage to the United States' relations with its allies.
The career specialists tend to agree that high priorities for the Reagan administration during its first year must be to reach understandings with America's allies and to follow through on the frameworks for Persian Gulf security and Arab-Israeli peace that were created by the Carter administration.
When it comes to the Middle East, however, Reagan's advisers appear to be far from united. Some of them are attracted by the idea of establishing permanent American bases in the Middle East perhaps using the two bases that Israel is to turn over to Egypt in the Sinai. But Egypt is opposed to this, and its peace treaty with Israel might rule it out anyway.
In the final analysis, it is difficult for may foreign affairs specialist to see how the Reagan team can do much more than follow up on Carter administration efforts to establish American access to Arab nations' bases, but not permanent US bases, in the Middle East.
"There is a general feeling that it would be nice to have bases in the Sinai, but we rally haven't thought it through," said one adviser.
Reagan advisers seem to sense a need to depart from the Carter-sponsored Camp David peace process. Some of them favor the so-called Jordanian option, which would bring King Hussein into the process. But King Hussein's rapprochement with a warring Iraq seems to rule out that possibility for the time being.
Reagan has had little time so far to focus on such foreign policy issues. but some of them may rapidly confront him once he takes office.
As an example, some career experts on the middle East think Reagan will face a major problem with Israel if Prime Minister Menachem Begin agrees to proposals for Israeli annexation of the occupied Golan Heights. These experts think there is a strong possibility of this happening if the Begin government is further weakened politically and sees such an annexation as a means of retaining the neccesary rightwing support to retain in power.
Annexation of the Golan Heights, which were taken by the Israelis from Syria in the 1967 war, would, in the view of the experts, make it extremely difficult for Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to stay with the peace process. It would go far toward undermining the UN resolutions that serve as a basis for an Arab-Israeli settlement. It might cause Syria to lean even more heavily on the USSR for support.