As Jimmy Carter sees it:

* Negotiation, not force, is the best tactic in Central America. * Reagan has disrupted the continuity of presidential policymaking.

* The moderation of early Reagan policies should be noticed.

President Carter spoke at particular length about the conduct of American foreign policy. Monitor Washington bureau chief Godfrey Sperling Jr. began this portion of the discussion as follows:

Do you have questions about what President Reagan is doing relating to Central America? As you know, the President bases his moves on what he sees as the Soviet-Cuban activity there. You had to deal with a similar provocation to a degree, didn't you?

Certainly. But I think there is an optional approach to a situation like that. You can turn to a maximum dependence on negotiations and a peaceful resolution, or you can depend upon a show of force and a belligerent attitude. You can assert the leadership from the White House in dealing with the Latin American issue. Or you can work closely with Latin American democratic leaders and let them take the public leadership.

And is that your inclination?

I think the peaceful approach with the maximum dependence on negotiations to resolve issues is better. It's better, also, to do what I did: I relied on Venezuela, Mexico, Costa Rica, Colombia, and, to some degree, Panama to consult very closely with us. Sometimes I took the lead in the private negotiations. But when a public decision was made, or a public proposal was made, then I asked one of those leaders to be the spokesman and take the case to the OAS (Organization of American States) and let the US be in the background, because I felt that the direct image of the US as an interventionist in Latin American affairs created a tendency for our effort to be counterproductive. There's kind of an onus attached to politically moderate forces within a country if they are identified with the US. In Vietnam, a lot of people turned against the moderates because they were looked upon as being puppets of the US.

I think the same thing applies, for instance, in Nicaragua, where moderate forces would like to see some moderation in the Sandinistas' policies. But when, in an international forum, the US is identified as their spokesman, this tends to weaken their influence within the country. They are looked upon as tools of the CIA.

What else could the United States be doing in Central America?

Another choice you have to make is whether you espouse in an open and consistent way the principles of basic freedom and human rights: an end of torture and murder by government, the punishment of those who obviously are guilty of crimes against the people, a clear and consistent move toward free elections, land reform, a humane approach to the people through AID (Agency for International Development) programs - particularly with health care and food and housing and, in the long range, education. It is a question of whether your country is identified unequivocally with those kinds of principles.

That approach may be looked upon by some as naive or overly idealistic. But I don't think that is the case in Latin America, where the enunciation of human rights is so important.

In those areas it was my inclination to do differently from what President Reagan has chosen to do. I can't certify that my policy was the best. I think it was. And his policy may ultimately succeed.

Is the President taking great risks, then, in Central America?

I think he's taking some great risks. I think in a military escalation this is always a possibility. I'm not predicting it.

And also, there's an element which I hesitate to mention because it can so easily be misunderstood, but it is there. And that is: Do we close all the doors among the democratic nations to the Sandinistas and, in effect, give them no alternative but to turn to Havana and Moscow for their friendship and support and relationships?

Even after the Sandinistas took over, I was disturbed by some of their policies. I thought they were too far to the left. There were some human rights abuses under them. But we tried to give them some economic aid. And I met with junta members in the Oval Office; went over my own grievances on what they were doing; urged them to initiate reforms, and predicated economic aid on those reforms being carried out. I minimized the military approach.

I don't know, at this point, how much willingness there is for negotiations. My judgment is that the Contadora group and the Nicaraguans want to negotiate. My judgment is that the Reagan administration, including (UN Ambassador Jeane J.) Kirkpatrick, are opposed to negotiation. I don't know about the Hondurans. The Hondurans obviously have a duality of authority. One is the so-called government leadership. The other is the military. And I don't really know under what circumstances the Honduran military forces or the government leaders are willing to negotiate.

I have little doubt, though, that if President Reagan joined with the Contadoran leaders and demanded that the Hondurans negotiate under the auspices of the OAS, the Hondurans would certainly succumb to that request.

How do you account for President Reagan's appointment of Mr. Kissinger - after expressing so much opposition to Kissinger during the 1980 campaign?

(Carter laughs.) Well, you have to change your attitude toward people after the election is over.

Did you rely on Kissinger at all?

I consulted with him quite often, particularly on the Mideast and SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks). I kept Kissinger fully informed, personally, and (Carter national security adviser Zbigniew) Brzezinski, (Secretary of State Cyrus) Vance, and I would meet with Kissinger periodically to go over all the details of Mideast negotiations and SALT.

The prediction is that Kissinger's attitude (on Central America) is substantially compatible with that of President Reagan. It is highly unlikely that the Kissinger commission would recommend something that was contrary to what President Reagan's policies already are. . . .

How would you assess the President's foreign policy, across the board?

I'm thankful that there's been substantial flexibility in, and moderation of, President Reagan's original policy. As you know, President Reagan has opposed, sometimes quite emphatically, the existing nuclear arms agreements: Vladivostok, SALT I, ABM, SALT II, limited test-ban treaty. He's been opposed to all those agreements.

And his basic presumption at the beginning, and even during the campaign, was that the Soviets did not want peace, the Soviets would not negotiate in good faith, and if they went through with an agreement, they would not honor it - and that there was an inherent inner rottenness in the Soviet system that was bound to self-destruct.

Well, with that presumption I don't think he had an inclination to enter nuclear-arms talks until there was such a furor raised in Europe because of some of the statements the President and (a former secretary of state) General (Alexander M.) Haig made, concerning limited nuclear war in the European theater , the firing of a nuclear ''warning shot,'' things of that kind. Hundreds of people took to the streets. And, partially to assuage that uproar, the nuclear talks were begun.

Do you see any change in public attitudes toward the possible use of nuclear weapons?

There was an unshakable presumption that our country was in the forefront of nuclear-arms reduction and the obstacle, if there was one, was in the Kremlin. But a couple of years ago that presumption was shaken. And now there is a doubt among many European leaders - and certainly among the populace of Europe - as to who is responsible for the delay in nuclear-arms control talks.

I share that confusion. I don't know whether the Soviet Union or the US is trying to negotiate in good faith toward an agreement. Most of the points being made from the US and the Soviet Union are for propaganda purposes. . . .

Do you see moderation elsewhere in Reagan foreign policy?

In the Mideast he certainly was not supportive, in the beginning, of the Camp David accords as the basis for any further progress. He paid no attention to it until September of 1982. At that time he made his statement which I felt was completely compatible with Camp David.

There was kind of an 18-month hiatus there when there was little attention paid to the Mideast. . . .

How do you account for this moderation of Reagan's views - a learning on the job, perhaps?

Partially. And it wasn't just toward what I had done, but it was toward what Ford and Nixon and others had done. . . .

But, again, how do you account for this change in Reagan's positions? Learning on the job?

Yes, with experience. Some of those changes were inevitable.

The President has now said there is a likelihood of a summit meeting with Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov next year. Do you favor such a meeting?

I would like to see it happen. And I think it would be very good for both countries if this would take place. However, I doubt that it will take place because the Soviets have never been willing to have a summit conference unless the results of the conference were fairly well preordained. They don't like to have an unsuccessful summit. . . .

I could never prevail on Brezhnev to have any sort of summit meeting until either all of the SALT II issues had been resolved or until Brezhnev had decided , within the Politburo advisory council, that they would accept the American position.

So I don't believe in the next year, with the presidential election and everything else going on, there is likely to be a situation where there can be a presupposition of agreement on major issues between the two leaders. I hope I'm wrong. I would like to see a summit. Carter style vs. Reagan style

When the conversation got around to the challenges of the American presidency , the first question was: ''Is the job just too big for one person to handle?''

Mr. Carter said there was nothing ''over-onerous'' about the job, ''as long as the person in the White House relies on good advice, has a broad-based Cabinet with extensive and diverse experience, works harmoniously with the members of Congress on matters of crucial importance, and keeps the public informed.''

But then the former President made clear that the running of the Reagan White House is a very different matter from the days of the Carter administration. And he drew the lines of contrast with great care and concern.m

What are the main differences between the way this President is doing his job and the way you presided over the presidency?

I delegated a lot. I never interfered with the way Bert Lance ran OMB (the Office of Management and Budget) or with the way Harold Brown ran the Defense Department. I wanted to be kept informed. But once I made a decision about a basic policy about our country or on a major budget issue, I trusted the Cabinet officers and others at their level to carry them out.

But there has been criticism that you got too much into what your people were doing.

Well, it was my nature, as an engineer, to want to understand the details of an issue that was within my exclusive purview. For instance, when I negotiated the SALT agreement with Dobrynin, or Gromyko, or Brezhnev, I didn't have to turn around. I didn't have to turn around to Harold Brown or Brzezinski and say, ''Will you explain this issue to me so that I can negotiate the final, concluding point?''

And when I was at Camp David with Begin and Sadat, I didn't have to trust Hal Saunders (the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs) or Cy Vance to tell me the history of the Mideast, the exact delineation of the borders, or how many people lived in certain areas, or what the Israeli and Egyptian policies were: I understood these things because I had studied them.

When I made the final decisions on the budget, after the first year I didn't have to depend on Bert Lance or anyone to explain to me the little tiny agencies and how they related to the Commerce Department or the Transportation Department. I understood that. I thought it was my job to do so.

As I studied as a naval officer and as I studied as a governor, and as I studied when I was getting the Carter warehouse started, I studied for the presidency. So I went into more specific details than, apparently, President Reagan does.

And I - without being proud about it - at a press conference it was a rare time when a news person could ask me a question that, to the best of my ability, I couldn't answer. I didn't have to fumble around. It was a rare time when Jody Powell had to correct something I had said afterward.

That's one difference. Another difference would be the basic relationship with predecessors. Historically in our country there has been a great continuity in foreign and defense policy as administrations changed, regardless of party.

I think that if you traced it in recent history, from the time I was born on down, there haven't been any dramatic shifts as you change administrations until you reached the Reagan administration.

And we can name a number of crucial issues, like the Mideast, relations with the developing world, African policy, SALT negotiations, nonproliferation, the Mideast, China, etc.: I basically carried out the policies or built upon the policies that had been established by Nixon and Ford.

But when Reagan came into office, there was a dramatic reversal on almost every one of those issues compared with what had been done by his predecessors - by both me and my Republican predecessors.

Any other difference?

Another difference is that I consulted continually with both Presidents Nixon and Ford on matters concerning China and SALT; with Nixon on matters concerning the Panama Canal Treaty, China, SALT; and the Mideast with Ford. President Reagan doesn't do this at all as far as I know, or very rarely does this.

I thought this was changing about a year ago - that the President was beginning to confer with you.

When Judge (William P.) Clark was first appointed (national security adviser) , he did come down to see me and asked me about the inner workings of the White House, how I related to Brzezinski, the time of day I received the CIA report. . . .

I have a good relationship with Judge Clark and Secretary (of State George P.) Shultz. But as far as the President is concerned: There is no relationship.

I think the only time he ever called me was when he asked me to help him with the AWACS sale to Saudi Arabia a couple of years ago. I did as he requested. I made a couple of calls to key senators. The vote was very close, as you recall, and perhaps made the difference.

He didn't ask you about Central America, then?

He didn't ask me about anything. And I'm not looking for a job as adviser. I'm not trying to inject myself into it. But you asked me about differences, and those are the three major differences between President Reagan and myself.

I think the President's policy - his policy as governor and as President - is to deal with overall strategy and public relations. And he does this extremely well, as you know. And not to become immersed in the details of managing or governing. Second, there is this discontinuity on defense and foreign-affairs policy. And third is his relationship with predecessors.

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