In world affairs, the year 1986 was when Ronald Reagan waged war on terrorism, Libya, and Nicaragua with mixed results while Mikhail Gorbachev wooed China and Western Europe. The two world leaders met once together in Reykjavik, to the regret of Mr. Reagan who came out a poor second in what turned into a propaganda duel.
At the end of the year, Mr. Gorbachev was making headway, but slowly, against economic lethargy at home while Mr. Reagan was immobilized by the disclosure of unwise clandestine dealings with Iran, and probably criminal clandestine dealings with ``contras.''
The most consistent and perhaps important action of 1986 was the unfolding of a new Soviet foreign policy. Mr. Gorbachev was working toward easing his country's relations all around its vast rim. Most specific and visible was the courtship of China. He promised, or appeared to promise, reduction in Soviet forces on China's frontier and reduced support to Vietnam. Moscow also made conciliatory gestures toward Japan, but not enough to take Japanese attention away from its preoccupation with its own economic problems.
To the south, Moscow was trying to develop relations with Iran while continuing to supply arms to Iraq. To the West, it allowed more leeway to its satellites while saying, and in some cases doing, those things which would allay Western suspicion. One example was the admission, although tardy, of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and consultations with Western neighbors aimed at reducing the danger of a repetition.
A more relaxed attitude toward dissenters was obviously another part of a policy of trying to improve the Soviet image in the outside world. For example, they have released Andrei Sakharov from internal exile.
But the Soviets did not relax their attempt to Sovietize Afghanistan. The fighting was heavier than ever. Determination on the Soviet side was matched by rising weapons on the mujahideen side.
One of Washington's main efforts during the year was against terrorism. The dramatic highlight was the bombing of Libya on April 15. The hope was that it would stamp out terrorism. It did produce a change in Libya's Muammar Qaddafi. He donned a lower profile. We have heard less of him since. It may also have reduced his own personal involvement in terrorist acts, although terrorism itself continues. In September alone, Arabs seized a Pan American airliner on the ground in Karachi, other Arabs invaded a synagogue in Istanbul, killing 23, and five bombs were set off in Paris over a 10-day period.
On the other hand, the Western European countries tightened their borders and their surveillance and exported many official diplomats who were suspected of association with terrorists. The committing of terrorist acts became more difficult and seemed to be on the decline in Western Europe by the end of the year.
Equally tenacious during 1986 was Mr. Reagan's campaign against the government of Nicaragua. In May, he began a campaign to try to induce Congress to permit the arming of the Nicaraguan contras. In March, the House voted against military aid to the contras. In June, under major White House pressure, the House reversed itself.
Meanwhile (we have now learned), the arms delivery operation had been continued clandestinely, allegedly with ``private'' funding. We still do not know how much was actually private. We do have the word of Attorney General Edwin Meese that some of it was derived from the profit on the arms sale to Iran. That sale was supposed to have obtained the release of all American hostages in Lebanon. Three were released, but three more Americans were seized over the same time period.
The White House is now paying a political price for arming the contras, and getting little in return. During most of 1986, the contras were bottled up inside their camps in Honduras by the regular armed forces of the Nicaraguan government. Twice during the year the United States persuaded the Honduran Army to move to the front and push the Nicaraguans away from the contra camps. The contras were not only unable to take the offensive into Nicaragua; they also could not even defend their own base camps without help.
During 1986, US-Soviet relations were bristly on the surface and marked primarily by sparring over arms control with no new agreements. But neither was doing anything new to the disadvantage of the other. There was nothing new about US aid to the Afghan patriots or Soviet aid to Nicaragua. And there was obviously a deliberate balance in these two rival supply operations. The US gave the Afghans improved defensive power in the hills, but nothing that could threaten the Soviet garrisons in the cities. The Soviets gave the Nicaraguans the ability to fend off the contras, but not enough to take offensive action against neighboring countries or the US.
One could almost speak of a clandestine d'etente between Washington and Moscow concealed behind a barrage of routine propaganda warfare, except that this is not a conscious d'etente. It is a d'etente produced by mutual preoccupation with domestic affairs.
Mr. Gorbachev needs a respite from external adventures to be able to concentrate on trying to remake the Soviet system in a modern mold. Mr. Reagan was so entangled by the end of the year in his Iran-contra affair that he was in fact immobilized. Perforce, the US and USSR were practicing de facto coexistence as 1986 ends.