Zap!

Many would question the connection between international sanctions and the nearest video arcade, but events suggest they are linked by a growing temptation to zap the opponent.

Parents and local authorities are more and more troubled by the presence of video games in public places. Adolescents become addicted, they say, while wasting time and picking up other bad habits. Are Pac-Man and Atari more than the latest symptoms of children growing into independence?

All the players of video games are not minors. The nature of their lures may reflect a wider social issue: how to approach the resolution of human problems.

As life gets more complex, it is understandable for all to look for simpler answers. We abhor uncertainties and avoid calculating side effects. Magic solutions are preferred - the pill that cures all, the single-issue formula, or the push-button defense system.

The tendency is especially marked in global affairs, where firsthand observation is difficult and everything depends on everything else. The dream-world answer is like a video game: zap the opponent in a simple, one-on-one test of reflexes.

A preference for mechanical manipulation of others - the zap - is easier than negotiating face to face. To the credit of the Reagan administration, Alexander Haig went a-shuttling between London and Buenos Aires before the United States took sides in the Falklands/Malvinas fight.

The President himself tried his skills on the European public in June. In the experience he was described like a race car at the Indy 500 - superbly ''prepared'' before the trip and ''performing'' beautifully at the first encounter. Yet the one agreement he made there was soon upset by new US sanctions to deny pipeline equipment to the USSR.

Sanctions have been the first resort of a succession of presidents. In relations with the USSR alone, the parallels were striking between Jimmy Carter's sanctions over Afghanistan and Reagan's over Poland. Lyndon Johnson believed that the ''Rolling Thunder'' of steadily increased bombing in North Vietnam would save the South; Richard Nixon thought that sudden increases would do it.

Zapping is not limited to violence, nor does it stop at the use of economic power. It can just as well take the forms of a break in diplomatic relations or a United Nations resolution of condemnation. All of these have in common an avoidance of dialogue, of exploration, of strengths husbanded by being withheld rather than being dissipated by being spent.

The zap is cleaner, more remote. Just put in a coin, play into a structured interaction with a faceless enemy, win or lose, feed in another coin. The adversary has only programmed moves and responses, without a learning capacity. Third parties are just onlookers, they never join the game except as cheering sections or hecklers.

The fantasy to which we yield is this - we can hold everything else constant while building our own preferred world. Repeatedly this formula has led to disasters. In the '60s some doctrines favored building up one model, cooperative power in each continent. But Iran, Nigeria and Brazil turned out neither compliant nor well-behaved. More recently the ''China card'' collided with the ''Taiwan card'' we held and the ''Soviet card'' to which China could turn.

Much in the diplomatic and media lexicons these days is the ''carrot and stick'' approach to influencing others. Besides being oversimplified and insulting (the object to be influenced is a donkey), the image is inaccurate as a model of what works. Foreign governments are not long attracted by promises. They need to enjoy the carrot, but once a donkey is chewing on it all movement stops.

The opposite is also in error. Beat a donkey with a stick (or, more aptly, with that carrot that's been out front) and it might move. Punish another people , or its government, and they are inclined to get stubborn. The use of manipulative power is unsubtle - a blunt instrument with which to beat upon someone. Its existence, prior to use, on the other hand can work wonders if it is not too crudely displayed.

This is all too obvious now in that cockpit of crises, the Middle East. No one had to say, as Carter did, that Soviet intrusion into the Persian Gulf would be taken seriously by us. But few occupants of that area found it a believable scenario. So ''strategic consensus'' as a way of solving Middle Eastern problems was based on faulty assumptions. And dangling weapons sales alternately, or even concurrently, before Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Jordan - not to mention others less prominent - most have further assumed that no one out there reads the papers.

The uses of potential power in negotiation are delicate processes. First, the powers must be real and preponderant. Bluffing won't do. The British could not risk sending an armada to the South Atlantic unless they were ready to use it. Once they were engaged, little room remained for subtleties. Carter's sanctions against the Soviets over Afghanistan were seriously meant, but they failed to reckon with alternate suppliers of grain and with eager athletes determined to compete in the Olympics.

There used to be a debate about whether diplomacy was a game of chess or poker. The answer is neither, nor will Pac-Man qualify for the presidency in 1984. Yes, it is a jungle out there but it's filled with real people, not robots.

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