Foreign affairs in the election

THE 1988 election should be about issues as well as candidates. In foreign affairs and defense the United States has not been confronted with so serious a range of challenges in 40 years: The huge budget deficit must be reduced by at least $40 billion a year without bringing on a recession.

The trade deficit must be ended. For this, US net exports must increase by about $200 billion and countries now running large surpluses such as Japan, Western Europe, and some Asian nations will have to absorb heavy cuts by expanding domestic demand. That will require close cooperation.

East-West relations will have to be adapted to evolving Soviet policy under Mikhail Gorbachev, especially regarding arms control and regional conflict.

Defense programs and military forces have to be reshaped to reflect a coherent strategy and a realistic budget well below that projected under Caspar Weinberger.

Relations with Western Europe, NATO, and Japan will have to be adjusted to take account of changing strategic, economic, and political conditions.

The less developed countries will have to be helped to cope with the problems of debt, slow growth, and sluggish trade.

In the Middle East, vigorous measures must be pushed for stability and peace.

Will the US continue to pursue the Reagan Doctrine in peripheral areas with Marxist regimes?

In dealing with these issues, the nation must belatedly review and clarify its role in the world. It must come to terms with interdependence and the decline in its relative power, due mainly to the growth of other states, but also to mismanagement of our economy and foreign policy. The Reagan effort to recapture the earlier predominance has now been moderated especially in US-Soviet relations, arms control, and the defense budget. But the nation is far from a coherent strategy integrating its interests and commitments with its means and situation.

Nevertheless, the US is still unique in the size of its economy and as the keystone of Western security. US leadership remains essential in developing and managing the cooperation with allies and others which is required for security and economic prosperity.

Meeting these challenges during the next presidency will require:

1.Presidential leadership, based not on optimistic speeches, but on honestly laying out what needs to be done and enlisting domestic support and cooperation by allies and others.

2.Cabinet members, especially in the State, Defense, and Treasury Departments, and top officials of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Central Intelligence Agency, and Budget Department, who have the competence and judgment to provide wise advice.

3.A process for making policy, which will mobilize the expertise, knowledge, and experience of the career officials in the departments and agencies. Properly used, the National Security Council system can be an effective means for this purpose, for educating top policymakers, and for ensuring that the president gets full information, competing analyses, and active debate before reaching decisions. If the system is to work well, the president must take a personal interest in its operation, as Dwight Eisenhower did.

The current presidential campaign should stimulate discussion of the serious issues before the nation. That is essential both to reveal the intellectual and leadership capacities of the various candidates and to educate the electorate and help generate the necessary consensus for constructive action.

The campaign has failed miserably to perform this function. The candidates have spent more than $110 million, but it has gone mostly for TV spots that spout slogans or trash competitors. And much of the media has relapsed into focusing mainly on polls, tactics, and trivia.

We deserve better. The League of Women Voters, the parties, and the networks could at least ensure some genuine debates during the general election. These should not be conducted (as often in the past) like joint press conferences, with answers too brief for analysis. The candidates should be called on to explain their positions, and to carry on a serious debate. Of course they cannot be expected to have solutions to all the pending and emerging problems. But they should at least be able to demonstrate their grasp of the essentials of the major issues, and their approach to them. In doing so they will reveal their concept of the US role and how it should be performed.

Robert R. Bowie has over 40 years of experience with foreign affairs as a member of the Harvard faculty and in government.

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