The Reagan administraion has unique freedom of action in international affairs, largely because of fundamental changes in the reactions of third-world countries.
Two decades ago the military occupation of an independent country, the deployment of military forces, and the acknowledged use of covert action in Central America and the Caribbean would have sparked serious demonstrations and protests in Latin America.
Policies seen in black Africa as a clear tilt toward Pretoria would have brought strong attacks in the United Nations and demarches in Washington from African countries and the black community.
Arab countries would have reacted sharply to the shelling of Muslim villages in Lebanon and the perceived tolerance of Israeli actions.
Only in Europe does one see strong manifestations against US policy, but even these seem unlikely to prevent planned missile deployments.
President Reagan has visited Japan and Korea virtually free from the demonstrations and vocal opposition of the past.
Administration officials will argue that the absence of reaction to policies is proof that the world wants the United States to be strong and to use its strength.
That may be right.
There is no doubt that the nations of the third world have turned from their earlier preoccupation with global issues and their readiness to react to US policies. There are probably several reasons. Many of the decolonization issues that sparked earlier manifestations have been resolved. The group solidarity that once existed in the Arab and African states has been shattered by quarrels and divisions. The Soviet alternative is now seen by many as either menacing or unprofitable. In every continent, profound problems of economic survival and political cohesion have caused nations to turn inward. Opposition to US policies has been largely reduced to violent acts of terrorism by small, militant extremists.
There remain in Europe pockets of opposition and distrust toward US policies stemming from the fear of nuclear war. Even in this continent these attitudes are outweighed by the strong conservative trend and the deep suspicion of the Soviets within the noncommunist left.
There are those who would argue that attitudes in the rest of the world, whatever they may be, are irrelevant to US actions, that world opinion should not deter us from pursuing our interest. With some validity those who hold this view will point out that manifestations against US policies, such as the oil embargo of 1973, only strengthen US resolve. While this may be true, few administrations have been able to ignore continuing, serious manifestations against US policies around the world. The Reagan administration is largely free of that problem.
In the face of this freedom, the administration has three choices. It can assume that the silence demonstrates a fundamental change and broad long-term support for forceful US actions and proceed as it sees fit, subject only to domestic constraints. A second possibility is to decide that, even if this silence is only temporary, world opinion need not matter. A third is to assume that a US policy that ignores past sensitivities in the world can still have consequences even if opposition is not strongly manifested.
Freedom to act does not necessarily mean freedom from cost. New generations are rising in other nations, generations still forming opinions about the US. Despite their inward preoccupation, they possess the same feelings regarding intervention, sovereignty, and domination. It would be wrong to assume they welcome US actions that ignore these emotions.
The US has opportunities today to impose its will and opportunities to build a positive image with new generations. If it chooses to impose its will without serious concern over global opinion, it could well be stirring up trouble for the future. The deep emotions in other areas that once caused us problems are not permanently stilled; they are only, for the moment, otherwise preoccupied.