Were I the foreign minister of a friendly or allied country - Britain, France, West Germany, etc. - I'd send off a note this week to my ambassador in Washington suggesting that he spend as much time as possible cultivating three members of the United States Senate: Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia, Sen. Claiborne Pell (D) of Rhode Island, and Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia. I would suggest cultivating those three because recent events have brought quite a change in Washington. Over the past six years, most of the initiative in foreign policy has come from the Reagan White House, with the Senate (which enjoys a constitutional mandate to ``advise'' the President in foreign affairs, as well as the constitutional right to give or withold its ``consent'') mostly consenting and only occasionally lagging in consent.
From now on the story will be different. Mr. Reagan may propose, but he will be allowed to go down any of his favorite roads only if he can first persuade these three men that he is on a sound course. And sometimes they, not he, will be taking the initiative.
Add as an extra reason that one of them, Sam Nunn of Georgia, just might be the next president of the US, for which the election is now only two years away.
The Democratic Party is looking around for a new face in its leadership. The November elections put the spotlight on two persons not previously prominent in speculation about the US's future. Senator Nunn is one of these. The other is Michael Dukakis, just reelected by a whopping majority as governor of Massachusetts, a state that happens right now to be enjoying a roaring economic boom.
Senator Byrd is now the majority leader in the Senate. Senator Pell heads the Committee on Foreign Relations, and Senator Nunn heads the Committee on Military Affairs.
Those three men, during the last two years of the Reagan presidency, will have a large say in deciding how much money is to be spent on Mr. Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), whether the undeclared war against Nicaragua is to be continued or attenuated, and whether Mr. Reagan should renew his explorations into the possibility of an arms control agreement.
One can see a possible piece of delicate bargaining in the future. The three important senators could, in effect, offer the President's funds for both SDI and for fighting Nicaragua in proportion to the earnestness of his efforts to seek accommodation with the Soviets. Certainly funds for those projects will be calibrated according to senatorial wishes. And certainly there will be no more clandestine operations being run from the White House without the prior knowledge or consent of those three senators.
These changes follow inevitably from the elections, from the disclosure of a gunrunning operation to the contra rebels fighting the Nicaraguan government (the Eugene Hasenfus affair), and from the exposure of the attempt to buy hostages by delivering guns to Iran.
President Reagan's popularity seems to be as high as ever, but his ability to influence Congress and take the initiative in foreign affairs is another matter. In this month's election, he tried to persuade the voters that he needed a majority of senators from his own party in order to carry through his policies. Either the voters were uninterested in the Reagan policies or unpersuaded by his arguments. They gave the Democrats control of the Senate by a wider margin than the Democrats had dared expect or than the Republicans had feared. The change will probably make only a marginal difference in domestic policy. It could be decisive in foreign policy.
Not only did the election hand control of the Senate over to the Democrats. Confidence in the competence of the Reagan foreign policy has also been shaken, in both allied capitals and in the Congress. The gunrunning to Nicaragua was bungled. So was the buying of hostages with guns to Iran (in flagrant violation of Mr. Reagan's own rhetorical precepts). And the evidence mounts that Mr. Reagan was maneuvered by the Soviets at the Iceland summit into agreeing, or appearing to agree, to arms reductions that would have damaged the alliance.
Obviously, the alliance is not going to break up because Mr. Reagan fumbled the summit or because the White House staff has been proved incompetent at gunrunning and hostage-buying. None of the allies will quit the alliance. But from now on more consideration will be given by the Reagan administration to the interests of the allies and to the wishes of the Senate.
All of the above makes it seem more likely that the Reagan era in both foreign and domestic policy is running down. If the Soviets read this to mean that they might as well put off serious business with the Americans until there is a new person in the Oval Office, it would not be surprising. On on the other hand, Mr. Reagan may be especially anxious now to achieve something that will make him memorable in the history books. The Soviets should think twice before deciding to sit out the balance of the Reagan term.