Washington — IT was an extraordinary moment of history. Inveterate anticommunist Ronald Reagan, standing under a towering bust of Lenin at Moscow State University, spoke to Soviet students about his hopes for reforms in their country and improved relations between the superpowers. ``Your generation is living in one of the most exciting, hopeful times in Soviet history,'' he told his youthful audience. ``It is a time when the first breath of freedom stirs the air and the heart beats to the accelerated rhythm of hope.''
The 1988 Moscow summit symbolized the vast political distance Mr. Reagan had come in his transformation from rigid ideologue to pragmatic world leader in the mainstream of post-World War II foreign policy. It also symbolized the most significant legacy of the Reagan years: a rebirth of d'etente.
That legacy also places new burdens on President-elect George Bush. He must manage US-Soviet relations in a way that builds on the gains achieved, but avoids euphoria and unrealistic expectation that could lead to another downturn.
At the same time, the new president will face many problems left unresolved by the Reagan administration and becoming more acute in an increasingly multipolar world. Whereas superpower relations dominated US foreign policy in the past four decades, today's agenda includes other pressing issues: from drugs, terrorism, and the spread of sophisticated weapons, to debt relief for poor countries and conflicts in the Middle East and Central America.
In an era of Soviet glasnost, it would appear easier to manage such problems. But given the emergence of new power centers - Japan, the European Community, and China - foreign policy grows more complex.
``There are more actors to deal with,'' says David Newsom, director of Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy.
``But more important, it's more difficult to forge a consensus at home when the world scene is so complicated. It's easier to create policy when there is a single adversary.''
US-Soviet relations improve
However uncertain the future, diplomats laud the progress in Soviet-American relations under Mr. Reagan. The President's supporters argue that it was Reagan's toughness - and above all his ``star wars'' program, or Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) - that brought the Soviets to the nuclear-arms negotiating table.
But in the opinion of many diplomatic observers, it was the advent to power of Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow that opened the way to an accommodation. The Soviet leader's policy of perestroika, aimed at energizing the domestic economy, also dictated changes in the Kremlin's foreign policy agenda. The withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan, along with apparent planned scaling back of Soviet power in southern Africa and other parts of the world, was a part of that change.
``You have to credit this administration for looking facts in the eye,'' says Arthur Hartman, former US ambassador to Moscow.
``But the major credit is to the realists coming to power in Moscow who realized they had to deal with the failure of their system. The forces of history were at work there.''
On the other hand, Reagan's anti-Sovietism and willingness to use military force, albeit very cautiously, strengthened Mr. Gorbachev's hand. ``The administration's anti-Soviet, pro-military approach fitted perfectly into the Soviet transition, because it provided worst-case evidence for Gorbachev to show how far past Soviet policies have led the Soviets into a blind alley,'' comments Mark Garrison, director of the the Center for Foreign Policy Development at Brown University .
Afghanistan is a case in point. Gorbachev made the difficult decision to cut Soviet losses in Afghanistan, but US determination to check the Soviets there and provide the Afghan fighters with Stinger antiaircraft missiles helped convince the Soviet leader that the price of pacifying the country was too high.
Washington's objective now will be to steer the new relationship with a view to fostering gradual change in Soviet society on the side of pluralism and choice. This is a difficult task for any administration, because the basic differences between Soviet and American societies and interests will continue to cause tensions. But the momentum created by the Reagan-Gorbachev policies is expected to continue.
Nowhere will the momentum be more important than in the area of arms control. Reagan from the outset voiced an interest in not merely controlling but actually reducing nuclear weapons. Instinctively, he seemed to understand the American concern about the nuclear threat.
While inveighing against the ``evil empire,'' Reagan built up America's defenses and, once confident that he could negotiate from a position of strength, overruled Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and other ideologues in his administration to negotiate the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
The treaty is recognized by arms experts as a good, if lim-ited, first step, because it eliminated a whole class of medium-range weapons on both sides. But Reagan has not completed an accord for reducing long-range nuclear weapons, despite the fact that the two sides have come amazingly close. It remains for the new president to overcome the major stumbling blocks to a strategic arms (START) agreement, including verification of mobile missiles, the SDI program, and the related issue of interpretation of the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty. There is no American consensus yet on whether some level of space-based nuclear defense is a realis-tic goal, although many arms experts maintain it is not.
If nuclear weapons remain on the agenda, conventional arms are becoming the burning topic of interest in East-West relations. In the wake of the INF Treaty, the NATO nations are newly sensitized to the fact that they are confronted with Soviet superiority in tanks and other conventional weapons. With Gorbachev and his military aides talking about ``reasonable sufficiency,'' the United States and its allies will be testing his intentions and looking to the Soviets to take the first steps in rectifying the imbalance.
Beyond the issue of superpower relations and arms control, diplomatic specialists give Reagan a mixed scorecard in foreign policy. Relying heavily on symbols and style to convey resolve, Reagan managed to diminish the public's sense that the United States was on the run and gave them a sense of pride in their country. The intervention in Grenada and the bombing of Tripoli were billed as signs of this new toughness.
Whether this cautious, limited use of military power really demonstrated American will is debatable, however. The quick strike against Libya impressed Muammar Qaddafi, but the Grenada operation, done in secret and picked as a sure thing, seemed designed in part for domestic consumption after a loss of American lives in Lebanon and the potential impact of that tragedy in other trouble spots. Grenada may have pulled many Americans out of a psychological slump, but even some conservative analysts see the massive and poorly executed operation as a military embarrassment.
Elsewhere in the world, the President surprised his critics by so strongly backing democratic elements in the Philippines and South Korea. In both places the administration is given high marks for the way it handled a sensitive transition to democratic government.
Diplomatic analysts also give the administration a relatively good score for its policy in the volatile Gulf region, despite the Iran-contra fiasco and the Stark and Vincennes tragedies. The US showed its determination to engage militarily in order to ensure freedom of navigation, but used force within careful limits.
``The administration deserves an A-minus or B-plus in terms of preserving access to oil and keeping the fragile sheikhdoms afloat - all despite revolution and war,'' says William Quandt, a Brookings Institution expert. ``The basic balance of power has not changed.''
Unsolved problems abound
Despite some creditable achievements, however, Reagan leaves office with unsolved problems, missed opportunities, and outright failures.
Middle East. One of the most glaring blots on the Reagan record is the destruction of Lebanon brought on by the Israeli invasion in 1982, an invasion the administration countenanced. The loss of 241 US servicemen in an ill-conceived military operation and the inability to free nine American hostages are a part of the bitter legacy.
With respect to the Middle East peace process, Reagan did stake out some conceptual positions that held promise for breaking the deadlock of the longstanding Arab-Israeli dispute. The President's peace initiative in 1982, which called for Palestinian self-rule in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip under some form of Jordanian supervision, was widely applauded. But Reagan never exercised his personal leadership to follow through and, given passivity at the top, Secretary of State George Shultz was unable to revive the process despite rounds of peripatetic diplomacy.
Now that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are politically aroused, the urgency of resolving the peace issue has grown. The region remains a land mine that could blow up and damage US interests as well as the improving US-Soviet relationship. Adding to the general concern is the proliferation of ballistic missiles and chemical weapons in the region.
``The Middle East is moving to a dangerous situation from a military-balance point of view,'' says Lawrence S. Eagleburger, a former high State Department official. ``The danger of a new war there is growing.''
Central America. While the President was successful in thwarting Soviet expansion in Afghanistan, which had a genuine resistance force, he fared much less well in Central America, where he in effect organized the contra rebel force in hopes of bringing down Nicaragua's Marxist Sandinista government. To Reagan's frustration, he could not build a consensus in Congress or win public support for his policies.
Unwilling to test the route of a negotiated settlement with Nicaragua, yet also unwilling to commit US military force, the President failed to achieve a more democratic Nicaragua and bequeaths a policy shambles.
President-elect Bush must not only address the Nicaraguan issue. He faces emerging difficulties in El Salvador, where the far right is expected to come to power again; in Honduras, where the presence of the Nicaraguan contras has fueled anti-Americanism; and in Panama, where military strong man Manuel Noriega remains in power and the economy is a disaster.
The global economy. While Reaganites boast that America is ``standing tall'' again in the world, critics retort that administration policies have mortgaged the nation's future and weakened its global position. No single issue concerns diplomats more than the massive budget and trade deficits and the world debt problem. The public itself is coming to view Japanese economic strength as a greater threat than Soviet militarism.
``We're heading into a very different era,'' says Robert Kupperman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. ``We're not going to see clear balances of power, our influence will be less, and we'll have to give more than lip service to linking political with economic power.''
``We're now facing problems we have never faced before,'' says Mr. Eagleburger. ``It's not just a matter of the impact of debt on economic growth but of growing political instability - in Mexico, for instance.''
As global problems crowd in on the diplomatic calendar, world institutions and multilateral cooperation are expected to take on heightened importance. During much of his presidency, Reagan tended to engage in unilateral actions, such as mining Nicaraguan harbors, rather than turn to international organizations as a tool of diplomacy.
But the past few months have seen a shift of attitude toward the UN. Reagan, finally acknowledging the usefulness of the UN after it negotiated the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and the cease-fire in the Gulf war, approved a partial payment of US dues to the UN and began to speak more kindly of it.
Foreign policy specialists believe the next president will be under growing pressures to utilize multinational institutions and to rebuild a respect for law.
``I would hope that we might get back to the idea that the UN Charter was the right idea in the first place and that collective security and responsibilities were the route to go,'' says Brian Urquhart, former UN undersecretary-general. ``Whatever the difficulties, this would mean thinking about the promotion of the international rule of law.''
Tomorrow: Lifting the tone of government.