Updating foreign policy

As many people are noting, President Reagan has yet to put his stamp on foreign policy. The ostensible reason for this is the priority attention being given to the economy. But the gap is curious nonetheless. Especially since Mr. Reagan came into office vowing to restore the United States to a position of pre- eminence in the world.

Washington is trying, of course -- by toughly confronting the Russians and urging the Western allies and the third world to follow its lead. Yet somehow no one seems to be listening, and that tells us something about the world we live in which, though hardly a novel idea, needs to be better understood. Namely, that the US is trying to flex its muscles at a time when control of other peoples' destinies is no longer possible. Superpower power, in short, is simply not all-powerful. Nations today, driven by intense nationalism and desire for social change, increasingly tend to bend US or Soviet policy to their own purposes and go their own way.

Consider these areas of the world where American and Soviet objectives are frustrated:

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* In the Middle East the US would like a comprehensive peace settlement. It expresses its displeasure with Israel's use of American military equipment for air raids into Lebanon and its bombing of Iraq. Yet Menachem Begin probably narrowly won election because of his bold defiance of the West. He continues West Bank resettlement and other policies that utterly undermine Washington's objectives.

* In the Mideast, too, the US seeks to build up a "rapid deployment force" to counter Soviet expansionism. Arab nations of the region, however, see Israel, not the Russians, as the central threat.

* In Poland the USSR faces its greatest challenge since World War II. For all the saber rattling and hectoring from Moscow, the Poles, brought to their extremity under a discredited system, struggle to break free.

* In Iran, one of the most strategically crucial states in the Persian Gulf, the US and the USSR watch helplessly as the forces of revolution continue their turbulent course. The nation's fanatic Islamic rulers could not care less what either superpower thinks.

* In South Africa the new US administration is trying more carrot than stick in hopes of winning a settlement in Namibia. The new American warmth so far has produced nothing tangible. The government in Pretoria shows no inclination to accommodate Washington for all the latter's change of posture.

* In Afghanistan the Soviet boot still pins down a puppet regime. But the Afghans seem not to heed the Soviet tanks and helicopters and, as they have done for centuries, continue to resist an alien occupier.

* In Western Europe the US wants to invest the Atlantic alliance with new vigor and to rouse its allies to a greater defense effort. Yet the West Europeans have different perceptions about the Soviet threat, about detente, and about how to deal with the men in the Kremlin. This gap in outlook has yet to be bridged and tensions simmer in the alliance as a result.

The simple point we make is that the Reagan administration's general diplomatic approach so far -- focusing as it does on East- West confrontation -- seems designed more for the decade of the '50s than for the world of today. This in no way understates the need for unflagging alertness to communist aggression or a letting down of the military guard; we in fact share the President's concern that many around the globe may be growing apathetic to insidious Marxist influences. But it is incongruous that the US -- and the Soviet Union -- continue to pursue policies based on the old assumptions that physical might enables them to work their will on others.

Inasmuch as military power does not always translate into ability to act, the question arises: how canm the United States exert influence in today's multipolar world -- a world, it might be added, which the US constructively helped to bring about? Is it possible that diplomatic, economic, and moral tools are more effective than arms buildups in fostering third-world development and stability and thus averting regional conflicts that could draw the superpowers into nuclear war?

It is doubtful that the United States can ever regain its preeminence in the old-time sense -- and Moscow has certainly lost its global influence despite its arms buildup. But the US can and should be seeking ways to utilize its immense nonmilitary resources on behalf of fostering a more orderly, productive, and peaceful world. Here it ism in a position to provide respected leadership and vision. Mr. Reagan and his diplomatic aides might well rethink their emphasis as they grope for that still-to-be-defined "conceptional framework" in which foreign policy is made. To make a mark the y will have to be in step with modern-day realities.

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