IT'S not too soon for the next president of the United States to be thinking about the image his country will be projecting abroad. The Reagan administration has had an acute interest in attempting to mold a positive image overseas. Much of this interest has been expressed through the United States Information Agency and its international broadcasting subsidiary, the Voice of America. The agency has been headed by Charles Z. Wick, an energetic Reagan supporter and a personal friend of the President, who in the past has used his leverage to substantially increase the agency's budget.
Despite sophisticated packaging, a country's image is still largely determined by the character of its leaders and the quality of its policies.
Mr. Reagan's image abroad has gone through cycles. In the initial months of his presidency there was skepticism and sometimes even condescension.
That perception began to change as Reagan took hold, combating the image of American weakness projected by the Carter administration and rebuilding America's confidence. Many Europeans, some of them grudgingly, began to rate him a good President, with even the potential for greatness.
His standing increased as the prospect of arms control became a reality. Reagan has emerged from his negotiations with the Soviet Union's Mikhail Gorbachev with an increasingly constructive and ``peacemaking'' image. The great cloud overshadowing the Reagan administration has been Irangate, the ill-advised bid to trade arms for hostages, and to divert the Iranian proceeds to arms for the Nicaraguan contras.
Whether George Bush or Michael Dukakis succeeds Reagan, the incoming administration is likely to be leaner on charisma and personality. Mr. Bush would rely heavily on the Reagan administration's foreign policy record. Mr. Dukakis would likely be more reluctant to go it alone with American power and more concerned with acting in concert with other nations.
For either one, several areas loom where American relations with other countries could be strengthened. Clearly, American relations with the Soviet Union are central to Washington's foreign policy. But more attention should be paid to Mexico and Canada, the two neighbors which, in many respects, are more important to the United States than most other countries. The Pacific Basin, to which America's destiny may be much more closely linked than Europe, deserves upgraded American attention, especially in the light of expanding Soviet influence there.
Probably a special task force should be established to ensure that the United States is taking full advantage of fast-evolving communications technology as it seeks to tell the story abroad of a new administration.
Though American information officers abroad will remain in the front lines of the information campaign, a lot more could be done at home. Some of the firmest friends of the United States are visitors who have come to America and experienced firsthand its technological marvels, the generosity and friendship of its people, the openness, complexity, and contradictions of its society. With a dollar exchange that makes foreign travel to the United States more feasible, a new administration should accelerate campaigns to encourage tourists from abroad.
Meanwhile, there is a great deal more scope for encouraging foreign students to the United States. The Soviets work far more effectively than the US at subsidizing student residence in the Soviet Union. Students who spend their formative years in the US often take back positive impressions and ideas and friendships that last them for a lifetime. It is not too early for a would-be president to be deciding how he would position his administration abroad.