The Haig versus White House affair of the past two weeks in Washington casts useful light on the technique of foreign policy making -- or not making. The main lesson to be learned from it is that, if foreign policy is to be consistent and is to enjoy a reasonable chance of success, there should be an easy, close, and mutually trustful relationship between the president and his secretary of state.
Right now, in the wake of President Reagan's announcement that Vice-President Bush is to be in charge in any case of "crisis," not Alexander Haig, the secretary of state, we are back in the kind of situation we had during much of the Carter administration when ambassadors and foreign governments were unsure both as to source and as to the direction of American foreign policy.
During the Carter years the President himself gave one sense of direction in which the original emphasis was on cultivating relations with the countries of the third world. But Mr. Carter left actual foreign policy partly with the State Department, partly with his original UN Ambassador, Andrew Young, and partly with his White House adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski. Coordination among the four sources of policy (including the President) was imperfect. Outsiders could never be quite sure of how American policy might turn. The most glaring example was the policy of placing modern tactical nuclear weapons in Western Europe. For nearly a year the European allies worked on the assumption that this was to be done, including the so-called "neutron bomb." Then at the last moment that decision was deferred. The West Germans in particular have never forgotten. To them it spelled just plain foreign policy incompetence.
There was an earlier example of things to avoid which more nearly parallels the Haig vs. White House affair of recent days. James F. Byrnes was secretary of state to President Truman -- for a time. Mr. Byrnes had come to the State Department from the Senate where he had long been one of the most important and powerful members of that body. He had himself been frequently mentioned for the highest office. He was a possible alternative to Mr. Truman as vice-presidential candidate at the 1944 Democratic convention. Had he been a Protestant he very probably would have been in that office when Franklin Delano Roosevelt died. He was a Roman Catholic before John F. Kennedy broke the unwritten rule of American politics up to that time: that the president had to be a Protestant. Until Kennedy, every president was a Protestant.
When Senator Byrnes became Secretary of State Byrnes, he brought with himself to the State Department the feeling that he knew more about foreign affairs than the President, and also that he should have been President himself. His attitude expresed itself on the occasion of a day of negotiating in Moscow. Dean Acheson was along as his deputy. When adding up the events of the day, Mr. Acheson suggested to Mr. Byrnes that he send a report back to Washington. "There is no reason to," said Mr. Byrnes."I am here."
That assumption that there was no need to fill in the President back in Washington on important diplomatic developments produced an impossible strain in the Truman-Byrnes relationship. Mr. Byrnes had to go. He was replaced first by Gen. George Marshall, then by Mr. Acheson. Both successors sent a report to the President every night when on travels. A wise secretary of state keeps his president informed of his actions -- daily.
General Marshall and Mr. Acheson were successful secretaries of state in that there was never the slighest room for misunderstanding about who was running foreign policy. It was always the President. Both sometimes disagreed with the President's wishes. Recognition of Israel was a major case in point. Both opposed it strongly. But both General Marshall and Mr. Acheson then and always deferred to the President and did their best to execute his wishes.
The same held true in the relations between President Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles. Final decisions were always in "Ike's" hands. Mr. Dulles was extremely careful to report regularly and to consult directly on all important decisions, particularly when they touched domestic politics.
The Nixon-Kissinger relationship worked equally smoothly. People may like or dislike the direction of Nixon-Kissinger policy, but it ran smoothly and coherently (in the wrong direction, if you prefer to think so) but there was never any exposed difference between the President and his primary adviser, who was Mr. Kissinger.
Kissinger, Dulles, Acheson, and Marshall are all men who served their presidents loyally, and successfully, in terms of what the presidents wanted. All four were trusted. None of the four could have been a president in his own right. Kissinger was foreign-born. Dulles was a New York lawyer with no national constituency. Acheson was a Washington, D.C., lawyer with no political constituency of his own either. General Marshall regarded himself as being at the end of his career when he was secretary of state.
Alexander Haig came to high office in the Reagan administration in January of this year at the age of 57. He had commanded the armies of the North Atlantic alliance. He was a person of importance in his own right. He has a constituency, if largely in military circles. And he explored seriously the possibility of running for the presidency last year.
There has been less than total trust at the White House in Mr. Haig's primary dedication to the welfare and to the interests of his President. And now the ambassadors in Washington are wondering as they so often did during the Carter years who will be making what foreign policy, and i n what direction.