Reagan and the world

During his first two years in office President Reagan focused on trying to put his domestic house in order - a still unfinished and thorny task. But there began, too, his education in the wider affairs of the world. Where most presidents are instinctively drawn to the challenge of foreign policy, Mr. Reagan has seemed more at home with the challenge of domestic politics. Foreign policy got off to a slow start and soon encountered difficulties. Yet the President is gradually becoming more engaged abroad, and playing a more effective role as his ideological instincts are tempered by a bit more pragmatism and flexibility.

His new secretary of state has obviously made the difference. In a few short months George Shultz has freed US diplomacy of the burden of bureaucratic infighting and begun to influence Mr. Reagan's perceptions and actions. Quietly and intelligently, he is straightening out foreign policy.

Substantively, there is still little concrete achievement in the Reagan foreign policy record. Some worthwhile initiatives have been taken but these have yet to bear fruit. Early on, Mr. Reagan made some wrong turns and, as a result, considerable time has been spent making repairs: patching up relations with the European allies after the Siberian pipeline controversy; soothing ties with China because of a US tilt toward Taiwan; returning to the main issues of peace in the Middle East after being deflected by the policy of ''strategic consensus''; removing Central America from the diplomatic center stage. In the process, however, it can be said that Mr. Reagan has raised some legitimate questions - how dependent the West should become on trade with the East, for instance. He has also been exposed to the complexity of problems among nations and to the need for give and take in dealing with them.

To what extent Mr. Reagan has altered his basic view of the world - his tendency to see each problem in the context of East-West rivalry - is not clear. One hopes he is acquiring a more differentiated approach. In the next two years the question is whether he will have the vision, the will, and the courage to follow through on initiatives still at the paper stage. Among them:

* Arms control. It can be counted a plus that Soviet and US negotiators are actually holding talks aimed at reducing nuclear arsenals, and that each side feels compelled to try to capture the propaganda advantage by making public its proposals. But genuine negotiation does not take place in public, and so far there is little sign of progress in the two sets of arms talks under way in Geneva.

After two years many still ask: How serious is President Reagan about arms control? Serious enough to compromise to achieve agreements? There is nothing shameful about compromising with the Soviet Union - provided this enhances the security of both sides and reduces the dangers of a nuclear exchange. That is what negotiation is all about.

* The Middle East. Mr. Reagan's plan for resolving the Arab-Israeli dispute is his boldest foreign policy act to date. Taking account both of Israel's security needs and of the Palestinians' aspirations for a homeland, the plan provides a reasonable basis on which to negotiate.

But it will require strong US involvement and action to bring the parties to the bargaining table and keep them there. Mr. Reagan, to his credit, has begun to stand up for the US interest in his dealings with Israel - by opposing a congressional increase of aid, for instance. But he has not managed to persuade King Hussein that he can deliver the Israelis if the monarch joins peace talks. Mr. Rea-gan's failure to achieve the withdrawal of Israeli and other foreign forces from Lebanon by the end of 1982 is an indication of the larger challenge ahead - i.e., restraining Israel from swallowing up the occupied West Bank.

* World economy. Though perhaps the least compelling of Mr. Reagan's foreign policy tasks, economic cooperation is certainly among the most important. Recession bedevils virtually every country of the world and it will take countries working together to cut through their mutual problems and stem a tide of every-man-for-himself nationalism. The President has admirably stood up against protectionist tendencies at home and abroad. He has also joined in international efforts to help the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund avert a destabilizing global default on debts. His record on economic development aid, however, leaves the US reneging on earlier commitments.

Other areas could be cited where the Reagan presidency has made some progress but where results are awaited. Mr. Reagan at midterm can say he has plunged into the turbulent waters of global diplomacy, and is learning. In the two years ahead, it will become clear whether he is a dilettante - or a statesman.

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