Campaigns and foreign policy

By , David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.

The last two political campaigns and resulting changes in administration created serious problems for a coherent, credible United States foreign policy. It is possible that, whichever way the November election goes, the damage could be less in 1984.

The last two presidential transitions were strongly ideological. I was the secretary of state ad interim, the bridge between administrations, in the State Department in 1981. What struck me at the time was the rejection by the new administration, not only of past policies, but of the facts on which they were based.

Incoming Republicans, intent on reversing President Carter's human rights policies, were unaware of the legislative mandate that underlay those policies. There were facile - and erroneous - assumptions about the possibility of a strategic consensus that would include in a loose arrangement moderate Arab states and Israel. Until the new administration was briefed on the Iranian hostage negotiations, it seriously considered rejecting negotiations on the erroneous grounds that the US had agreed to pay ransom.

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Rigid assumptions and ideological approaches are not the monopoly of one party. Democrats fall prey to rhetoric just as Republicans do. Rigid assumptions spring from ideology, creating a tenacious belief in the way the world - and the US position in the world - should be, regardless of the realities. Some assumptions, less ideological, are formed by political strategy, calculated appeals to specific political groups. Assumptions can also represent the grip of an individual or group on a policy that alone gives them national prominence.

Some suggest that the excesses of a campaign can be discounted, that foreign audiences, like Americans, see campaign rhetoric for what it is and recognize that few administrations feel bound by campaign promises. This dismisses the issue too lightly.

Positions are taken on key issues in a campaign because groups fight for and gain the ear of the candidate. After the election, those who supported a campaign position will not be easily turned away. Their views must be recognized in the creation of future policies.

The signals sent out during a campaign can create misleading expectations and anxieties regarding actual policies that can haunt a new administration after it is established. Valuable time is lost and credibility is threatened in the major effort that must be made - at the expense of other activities - to walk away from past promises.

Finally, a strong ideological influence inhibits the process by which facts can be brought to light. Suspicion of career officials and the banishment of those who dare present different sets of facts create an atmosphere that is almost totalitarian in its effect.

A coherent foreign policy does not require agreement on specific approaches and objectives. Bipartisanship lies more in a tacit understanding between the major parties of the global and domestic realities that limit the room for foreign policy maneuver. In the past, such an understanding might have prevented unreasonable assumptions regarding US influence in the Middle East or over the People's Republic of China. Campaign debates held within the limits of reality will still provide flexible options without running the risk that the successful candidate will lose valuable time in shedding impossible commitments.

The current prospect is that this campaign may be conducted within a reasonable understanding of maneuverability. The Reagan administration spent months readjusting its rhetoric to reality. Among Mondale advisers are those who remember similar problems in the Carter administration. If these lessons are followed in the present campaign, the successful candidate and the nation will benefit. Further questions abroad concerning our stability and wisdom can be avoided.

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