Cyrus Vance has never been given to dramatic gesture. His whole style has been one of self-effacing service to his government and of restrained, low-key, pragmatic conduct of American foreign policy. Hence his sudden resignation as secretary of state -- the most flamboyant act of his career -- points to how deeply he must feel about the present course of US diplomacy. Although another disruption in the Carter administration is hardly a welcome development, one can only admire Mr. Vance's determination to stand by a matter of principle, in this case his conviction that the US raid in Iran was wrong. If flashy moves are not characteristic of Mr. Vance, this demonstration of his integrity unassailably is.
Two questions suggest themselves in the wake of the resignation:
* Will President Carter return the formulation and conduct of foreign policy to the State Department and appoint a secretary of state strong enough to wield the diplomatic leadership, i.e., to stand up to pressures from national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski? It is no secret that the differences of view and rivalry between the State Department and the National Security Council have helped to produce the image of inconsistency, unpredictability, and often ineptness with which US policy today is tarred. Mr. Vance often won the battles with Mr. Brzezinski. But in recent months, with President Carter under domestic political pressures to adopt a tougher foreign policy line, power has seemed to pass more and more to the NSC.
It should be obvious to the President, as it is to America's allies, that having more than one voice in foreign policy is confusing and indeed damaging to US interests. No one would question the need for an expression of all views within the administration, including Mr. Brzezinski's more militant ones. But the original intent of the National Security Council was to serve as a clearing house for these views and for a presentation of options to the President. Once decisions were made, the State Department was then to carry on as implementer and spokesman. It would disserve American diplomacy if the revision of the NSC role begun by Henry Kissinger and now perpetuated by Mr. Brzezinski were allowed to persist. Mr. Carter has an opportunity now to see it does not.
* Will the President use this occasion to reexamine his own ambivalence about the thrust and style of US foreign policy? The essential dispute seems to be over whether the growing military might and ambitions of the Soviet Union as well as political upheavals around the world are best met by a provocative, confrontational US posture or by a more restrained approach that does not eschew military power but emphasizes primarily nonmilitary solutions.
Mr. Vance is an exponent of the latter and, for all the nation's current diplomatic problems, it cannot be said that he leaves office without a creditable record of accomplishment. He has been criticized by the intellectual community for not articulating a "grand design," a "conceptual framework," an overall strategy. But his lawyer's gift for patient, persistent problem-solving perhaps has been more needed in this unusual time of political and social ferment and the uncertainties it produces.
Consider these diplomatic gains: He concluded the Panama Canal treaty negotiations and removed a nasty diplomatic problem. He set the stage for and helped in the negotiations of the first peace agreement in the Middle East. He brought the SALT II talks to a successful conclusion. He helped keep the British involved in Rhodesia, a policy which led to solution of a dangerous conflict. He, together with Ambassador Andrew Young, won new friends for the US in Africa, especially the key state of Nigeria. And, throughout the gropings over the Iran and Afghanistan crises, he has held the Western alliance together --over the lack of consensus in Mr. Carter's foreign policy shop. It is significant, in fact, that the Europeans saw in Mr. Vance the one steady and sensitive voice in US diplomacy.
These accomplishments tend to be forgotten in the heat of immediate foreign policy crises. But they should serve to remind the President and the American people that, in Mr. Vance's words, "complex problems can seldom be resolved by simple solutions." They may require -- not so much sweeping doctrines and strategies (especially when they cannot be implemented) or military adventures -- as dogged, firm, peaceful negotiation within the framework of steadfast goals. Mr. Vance leaves his post having taught us some valuable lessons. The nation owes him an enormous debt of gratitude.