Surprising as it may sound the chances are that Ronald Reagan will discover soon after taking office that his domestic problems will be more difficult than his foreign problems -- and by a wide margin.
He campaigned on the assumption that Washington faces a mounting Soviet expansionism which will require sudden and heavy increases in US defense spending which in turn would increase the difficulty of handling the American inflation. But right now the chances that the men in Moscow will do something new of a disturbing and threatening nature are remote.
Of course the situation in Poland might get out of hand and lead to military repression by Soviet armed forces. But that is in itself a major reason why Moscow is too strained and stretched by existing commitments to be free to launch new adventures.
One measure of Moscow's troubles is the way the voting went in the United Nations the other day on the resolution calling for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. Moscow got the support of all those countries which have no choice. Where Soviet troops are present a country votes with Moscow. That accounts for all the East European countries under actual Soviet occupation. But Romania, which has managed so far to avoid the presence of Soviet troops on its soil, actually abstained from voting although a member of the Warsaw Pact.
Outside Eastern Europe Moscow got the support of three important countries -- Cuba, Ethiopia, and Vietnam -- for the obvious reason that they are totally dependent on Moscow both for weapons and for economic survival. They are heavily subsidized.Add two Indian Ocean countries, Madagascar and the Seychelles islands, and Grenada in the Caribbean and Sao Tome and Principe off Africa's west coast which voted for the Kremlin in payment for economic support. As for Syria, which has an increasingly unpopular government, it depends on Moscow for its arms supply.
All together Moscow counted 22 countries voting its way. That included its own three votes. Of the 19 others not a one was truly free to vote against the Soviet Union India, which has long been pursuing a pro-Soviet foreign policy actually abstained. Algeria did the same. Libya did not vote. Finland, which lives under the Soviet shadow and hence under powerful pressure from Moscow showed remarkable courage by abstaining. A lot of countries one normally expects to find on the Soviet side in a UN vote managed to keep aloof on that one.
The number voting against Moscow was 111. Seldom has Soviet diplomacy and influence been shown to be so threadbare as on that vote.
Another measure of Moscow's present conditions is the count of Soviet army divisions which are substantially committed and hence unavailable for new adventure. There are 46 divisions deployed along the Chinese frontier -- and pinned there by continuing tensions along that frontier. There are 24 divisions in the southern part of the USSR of which about ten are actually in Afghanistan. Most of the others must be earmarked as a strategic reserve for that active front. There are 31 divisions in Eastern Europe sitting on top of East Germans, Czechs, Hungarians, and Poles. Considering the resrlessness of Poland none of these could with safety be moved away from present positions.
That makes a total of 101 divisions which are occupied by Moscow's unfinished war in afghanistan, by restlessness in Poland, and by Moscow's inability to get along with China.
There are 173 divisions in the Soviet Army. Hence more than half of its ground strength is immobilized. This is perhaps not quite as serious for Moscow as the condition the US was in during the Vietnam war when over half of total American armed strength -- ground, sea and air, including strategic bombers -- was tied down on the far side of the world. Yet it comes close to being the same thing in reverse. The US has no current active operations which subtract from its available military posture. Soviet forces are heavily committed on three fronts.
Which means that when Mr. Reagan takes over from Mr. Carter he will hold the stronger hand in the great game of power politics. The Soviets have more reasons to want to negotiate with him than he has for wanting to negotiate with them. He can take his time, and play it coolly. And in that in turn will be of some help to him when he faces his domestic problems -- but not by much. It only means that he does not have to start any massive military buildup at once.
But he will still need to make headway against inflation, and soon, because that is what the voters expect of him above all else. And how does he do that? The conventional Republican formula of the moment is tight money, fiscal prudence, and tax cuts. But that is precisely what Margaret Thatcher is trying in Britain -- and the result is a rising tide of unemployment and bankruptcies. Can the Thatcher formula actually be used in the US?