CAN Americans afford to elect presidents largely unversed and uninterested in foreign affairs at a time when we face grave and complex international problems in a turbulent and dangerous world? In answering this question, I believe we should keep in mind that not just the White House but the American people also bear responsibilities for deficiencies in our foreign policy. According to a report just released by the nonpartisan Atlantic Council, a majority of Americans are ``relatively illiterate in international affairs,'' two-thirds of the voters taking little or no interest in foreign policy. This, even though about 17 percent of production workers owe their jobs to international trade, 40 percent of US farmland produces for export, and 33 percent of US corporate profits come from international activity.
This apathy is of course reflected in at least the subconscious attitudes of many members of the Congress and executive branch. For if voters aren't interested and concerned, why should they be? I recall that when I was assistant secretary of state for congressional relations 20 years ago, I canvassed some 150 members of the House and Senate. The consensus was that except for those on committees dealing with foreign affairs, members of the Congress spent less than 2 percent of their time on foreign policy.
Fifty years ago it would have seemed to matter little. Today, however, as we enter the run-up to the 1988 presidential elections, it is a question that every American should consider, particularly in light of the recent flawed performance of the Reagan White House at Reykjavik, the abortive US-Iran arms-for-hostages deal, and the apparently related diversion of funds to the Nicaraguan contras despite congressional strictures.
For the first 160 years after our independence, we pursued a policy of isolation - aloofness from the world beyond us which consisted largely of the great European powers and their dependencies. Militarily protected by two great oceans and with no military power on our borders, we had nothing to fear. Economically we had all we needed - spacious land for a growing population and agriculture and the basic raw materials to underpin industrial expansion.
But World War II and the atomic missile age changed all that! Maintaining peace depends on a balance of military power, a burden that we in the United States do not alone have the resources to maintain without dangerously eroding our living standards. It depends on major contributions from our allies and on bases abroad from which to project our military power.
Economically our situation has also altered dramatically. Today our very economic life depends on imports of energy, raw materials, and other items and on foreign markets for our agricultural and other products.
Unlike the Soviet Union, which can dictate to its satellites, the US must depend on the voluntary cooperation of other free democratic nations.
How then do we obtain such cooperation?
President Eisenhower, with a background of international experience as supreme commander of Allied forces in both war and peace, perhaps put it best. When I was briefing him in 1957 on Japan's desire to replace the 1951 US-Japan security treaty imposed during occupation with one embodying the principle of equality, he approved despite Pentagon reluctance, saying: ``No matter how important a treaty or an international agreement may be, it will only be honored as long as each party perceives it to be in its own enlightened self-interest and if there is confidence in the other partner.''
On both counts - the enlightened self-interest of our friends and allies and their confidence in our leadership - we have not recently done well, as these examples show:
The confused performance at Reykjavik, where, without adequate consultation with our European allies, the President seemed to agree to scrapping all ballistic missiles in 10 years without any explanation of how the overwhelming Soviet conventional forces massed on NATO's borders would be countered.
The swap of US reporter Nicholas Daniloff for a Soviet KGB spy, despite the President's prior assurance that no such deal would be made.
The incredible arms-for-hostages deal with Iran, jeopardizing the security of our moderate friends in the Arab world, encouraging further hostage taking, violating our pledge not to deal with terrorists, and ignoring our admonishment to others not to ship arms to Iran.
The related disappearance and apparent diversion of funds to the contras.
The huge budget and related trade deficits that have transformed us from a creditor to the world's greatest debtor nation, creating chaos on international money markets and threatening future generations.
What then, as we approach the 1988 elections, should Americans look for in presidential candidates if their vital national interests are to be protected?
Certainly skillfully crafted speeches delivered by masterly communicators are not enough, for it is deeds not words that count.
Similarly, in a rapidly changing world, reliance on hard-line adherence to outmoded ideological concepts based only on partial knowledge and understanding is not the answer. For embedded in the very concept of democracy is the spirit of compromise. This does not mean abandoning one's principles, but it does mean recognizing that there are two sides to most questions and that if sterile deadlock is to be averted, there must be some give-and-take.
Finally, while actual international experience is, of course, not essential for a president, he should have had at least some background exposure to and understanding of the great problems that make world affairs so hazardous.
He should select his key advisers and envoys on foreign affairs, not as a reward for their financial or other contributions to his political party, but for their expertise, sound judgment, and the courage to present their assessments, especially when they differ from those of the president.
A president must have the patience to devote much time to grasping the basic elements (not the details) of the foreign policy problems he faces and the effect of each of the options open to him on the vital interests of the US and also on those of our friends and allies on whose cooperation we heavily depend.
No president nor his White House staff can possibly master all aspects of the innumerable problems he faces. That is why he has expert advisers in various departments and agencies of the executive branch. He needs the best and most candid advice he can get. So above all, a president should never let himself be walled off from such advice by the White House chief of staff or others in his entourage who wish to spare him from views that differ from his own. Such a ``yes man'' approach is the sure path to disaster.
Douglas MacArthur II, a retired career ambassador, has held six presidential appointments, including ambassador to Japan and assistant secretary of state for congressional relations.