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A more peaceable society

By AT / February 22, 1988

AMERICA's presidential candidates agree on the broad, steady foreign policy goals. United States national security and economic well-being are paramount. The East-West relationship must be carefully managed. Such valued principles as human rights, democracy, and the rule of law deserve strong support. Yet the US is not static. Its economy is increasingly dependent on overseas trade; its population is increasingly Hispanic and Asian. Accordingly, the presidential candidates often differ sharply on such all-important details as the strategies and priorities with which US foreign policy goals are pursued.

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How can security be achieved?

The Reagan administration has seen security largely in military terms: It shored up the nation's defenses.

US-Soviet security is no longer a zero-sum game in which one power is secure at the other's expense. If ``star wars'' encourages trust in a vague continental invulnerability, it is unrealistic.

The administration views the third world primarily as an arena of superpower conflict. Anticommunist rebels in Nicaragua, Angola, Cambodia, and Afghanistan were backed.

The next administration should make a greater effort to view East-West relations in a North-South context as well. Social and economic problems, which often shape the appeal of one system over another, must be addressed.

The US must also work harder to coordinate foreign economic policy and stabilize the dollar. Washington leadership on the world debt crisis is also needed.

What should US policy priorities be?

The current administration has overexpanded US commitments, listing even Chad and Sudan among nations vital to the US national interest. The US has defense ties of some kind with about 60 nations. Some vagueness on the subject can keep adversaries guessing, but friends can also wrongly assume it means US military help in any grievance.

US voters and overseas friends deserve a clear understanding of America's defense and aid priorities. A nation with a sizable deficit and a Vietnam-wary electorate cannot avoid tough choices. Americans like to think their nation can do anything anywhere; in practice the costs and risks are too high.

Alliances with Western Europe and Japan are most vital; institutional reforms are needed to give these nations a larger role in making decisions and in bearing costs. America's open-ended military commitment in the Gulf merits review.

A new administration must reassess America's leadership role. By taking a strong, active stance in the Middle East, the US can give nations in the area someone to blame for the tough decisions they must make to get an accord. The US should also call for another world environment parley to review progress made since the UN Stockholm conference of 1972. Yet US leadership need not mean more high-profile or unilateral action; often the US can serve as a catalyst within multilateral efforts.

Who speaks for the president?

US foreign policy is clearest when a president specifies whether the national-security adviser or, preferably, the secretary of state speaks for him. An administration need not speak with a single voice, but a more harmonious chorus can help.