Who gets the credit for progress in foreign policy?
REAGAN administration officials are yielding to the irresistible temptation to take credit for favorable movement in a number of the world's trouble spots. As one senior official recently wrote: ``Seeds sown by President Reagan eight years ago, nurtured by toughness, firmness and a clear vision of American principles, are now bearing fruit.'' He then goes on to mention the improved relations with the Soviet Union, the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia, the progress in talks between South Africa, Angola, and Cuba, the growing worldwide movement toward democracy, and the expansion of the free-market system.
The US response to world events may well have influenced these developments. Statements by officials in Washington designed to score points in an election year do not help foreign relations, however, if they give the United States the primary credit for progress that may have been largely the work of others.
Historians will probably never agree on what combination of force and forces may have created the current moves toward the relaxation of a number of tensions. Events outside the US and over which this country had little control opened opportunities.
Foremost among these was the rise to power of Mikhail Gorbachev. The opposition to the Soviet presence in Afghanistan supported not only by the US, but by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and China, was surely a factor in Mr. Gorbachev's early decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, facilitated by the mediation of the United Nations Secretary-General. This might not have happened, however, but for Gorbachev's determination to improve the failing Soviet economy.
These new Soviet priorities were also a factor in the progress in arms control talks. The President's proposal of the Strategic Defense Initiative and American firmness may have served to pressure the Soviets, but without some new thinking in Moscow it is doubtful how much progress might have been made.
The US role in Cambodia has been, at best, peripheral. The previous foreign minister of Indonesia, Mochtar Kusumaatmadja, worked for many years to bring about a solution to that problem. His successor, Ali Alatas, has recently brought warring factions together. Although a solution to that conflict is still far off, credit should be given to the Indonesians and the other countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
In the case of Angola, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Chester Crocker, does deserve praise. He has pursued a solution to the tangled web of South African, Cuban, Angolan, European, and American interests with imagination and determination.
Even on this issue, however, the basis for a solution lies in a UN Security Council resolution worked out well before the Reagan administration. The actions and machinery of the often denigrated UN have now become central not only to the Angolan issue and to the ultimate course of events in Afghanistan, but to the end of the Iraq-Iran war as well.
Some commentators give principal credit to the presence of the US Navy in the Gulf to Iran's decision to end the war. Other factors, however, less palatable to us, such as the Iraqi missile attacks on Tehran and the use of chemical weapons, may have contributed as much, if not more, to Iran's war weariness.
The world is seeing progress toward democracy and freer economies. The signs of this were present even before the Reagan administration, and spurred, in part, by President Carter's often discredited human rights policies. But more fundamental to these changes has been the discovery in many countries that socialism was not working.
A risk is entailed in emphasizing a US role in regional issues where progress has come about through an interplay of forces. In none of the cases is the final outcome clear. Each of the successes cited is vulnerable to sudden reverses.
Beyond that, however, those of us who have served abroad are keenly aware of the adverse reaction, even among our friends, to the presumption of American leaders who claim a major US role in developments for which other nations and leaders have made contributions and sacrifices. Some resistance to the temptation to take the primary credit for favorable trends is required to sustain the image of the US as a world leader beyond its boundaries.
David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.