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Managing global change

By Robert R. BowieRobert R. Bowie has been concerned with foreign affairs for nearly 40 years on the Harvard faculty, in government posts, and as a consultant. / October 28, 1988



IN the next decade the United States will probably have to reshape and adapt its foreign policy more profoundly than at any time since the early 1950s. The election should be preparing us for that challenge. For nearly four decades the US has been living in a global system composed of two realms. One has been the hostile East-West regime based on containing a menacing Soviet Union and its bloc. The other has been the interdependent community of the noncommunist nations, based on cooperation for security and economic progress.

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Both will continue, but they will be changing substantially in the coming period, as new relations develop within and between them.

The process of change seems likely to be most dramatic in the East-West realm. Its impetus will be Mikhail Gorbachev's aggressive drive for restructuring the Soviet domestic system and its external policy. How far and how fast he will succeed in revitalizing the Soviet economy and society will remain uncertain for some time. The obstacles are truly formidable. And his program is evolving as he grapples with stagnation and more fully grasps its ramifications. Equally striking are his initiatives for revising Soviet foreign and military policy. In words, at least, he and his supporters are seeking to come to terms with interdependence in security and economics.

No doubt the West should be cautious not to mistake words for deeds. But caution does not justify inaction. It behooves us to test the words by pressing for deeds. We cannot afford to be merely reactive or wait-and-see. The West, with the US in the lead, should be devising proposals of its own, which could lead to more stable, peaceful, and cooperative relations if the Soviets reciprocate. We should be taking initiatives in arms control, regional conflicts, Eastern Europe, and economic relations. Our purpose is not to ``help'' Mr. Gorbachev but to make sure we do not miss a chance to serve our own interests by fostering cooperation and reducing the areas of rivalry and conflict. We can and should test Gorbachev's ``new thinking.''

The Western community will also be in transition and under stress. Probing and negotiating regarding East-West relations will itself be unsettling for familiar premises and policies and could be seriously divisive. At the same time, this community will be under severe strains from other causes: the staggering task of correcting the consequences of eight years of US economic profligacy; coping with the heavy debt burden of less developed countries; adjusting the roles of a revived European Community and a vigorous Japan. Together these manifold tensions will require mutual understanding and joint action if they are not to fragment the Western community and disrupt progress toward a broader, cooperative global order.

In this context the US has a major part to play. It will have to tackle urgently the neglected problems of the huge budget and trade deficits (including taxes and paring back defense programs), and improving competitiveness, investment, and education. And it should take the lead in pursuing East-West initiatives and negotiations and in recasting roles within the Western coalition while preserving its cohesion.

In the face of these major challenges, the US campaign and election should be fulfilling two functions: to educate the electorate regarding the problems and choices that lie ahead, and to produce a president well qualified for leadership.

Neither task is being fulfilled. The campaign has not elucidated the critical issues; it has defined no mandate regarding the important choices that lie ahead. The Bush campaign has been especially egregious in trivializing the serious issues.

And neither candidate is well equipped for the job ahead in foreign affairs. Neither is an inspiring leader. George Bush, despite his career, seems shallow, lacking convictions, and without any real experience in decisionmaking. Michael Dukakis seems more intelligent, and is used to taking responsibility and making decisions; but he appears arrogant and has little background in foreign affairs or defense.

Hence both will depend heavily on their advisers - though for quite different reasons. As president, Mr. Bush would probably rely greatly on delegation - as Ronald Reagan has; his key advisers would be virtual surrogates for many issues. Mr. Dukakis will clearly be in charge and decisive; the likely problem may be to ensure that he listens to forceful advisers, with differing perspectives. With such qualified advisers, Dukakis seems to me better equipped to understand the issues, make the difficult decisions, and persist in seeking to make them effective.