Presidents need to be global in outlook
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.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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.''