Edmund Muskie accepted appointment as the new secretary of state of the United States on the assurance from President Carter that he, Mr. Muskie, will be "the foreign policy spokesman" for the Carter administration from now, right on as long as Mr. Muskie remains at the State Department.
Mr. Muskie stated this in the presence of the President, who did not contradict him.
This public assertion that beginning now the secretary of state will be the voice of the present administration in foreign policy is the direct result of the plain fact that so far in the Carter administration there have been two voices and two sources of foreign policy which were often in conflict. This is the main reason behind the vacillation and the uncertainty which has plagued foreign policymaking since Mr. Carter took office.
This situation of dual and often conflicting sources of foreign policy is not a novelty in Washington, but it had become more acute, more visible, and the cause of more trouble in recent months than is either normal or reasonable.
The duality in foreign policymaking cannot be removed entirely. Nor, indeed, would it be desirable to do so. The State Department is the place where certainly in theory and usually in practice foreign policy is conceived and planned objectively in terms of the long-term national interests of the state. But clear, long-term thinking and planning does not always fit immediate domestic political emotions or pressures. The White House is where domestic politics and foreign policy are melded.
The President is a political person and the presidency is a political institution. The person and the institution often feel impelled to adjust, tailor, or change policies which come from the cooler and usually nonpolitical corridors of the State Department. Besides, a number of presidents have wanted and indeed insisted on making foreign policy themselves without benefit of State Department help, sometimes in opposition to the State Department.
Some presidents have left foreign policy almost entirely to a secretary of state. Woodrow Wilson is an example of a president who played a major role in policy and employed his own personal representative, Col. Edward M. House, who undertook missions for the President, sometimes without the State Department being informed. Harry Hopkins did the same for Franklin Roosevelt.
But the White House role in foreign policymaking was never institutionalized until after World War II. It was institutionalized during the Truman administration in the form of the National Security Council. In theory this was never to be a policymaking institution but a coordinating committee where the views of the various concerned departments of government would be brought together and presented to the president.
The purpose was to make sure that the president was informed of all interests bearing on a particular decision before he made his decision. To that end a staff was set up and a person selected to head the staff and channel its work to the president. That person was first called an administrative assistant to the president, then special assistant to the president for national security affairs.
The system worked as intended under Truman and Eisenhower. The special assistant gathered, sorted, coordinated, and channeled to the president. He was meticulously careful to avoid molding or shaping according to his own personal inclinations.
Under Kennedy, with McGeorge Bundy in the special assistant slot, there first began to be some personal contribution to policy. Under Lyndon Johnson, Walt Rostow became a major generator of policy, channeling to the president what fitted his own views and suppressing what did not. For the first time the national security adviser became more influential than the secretary of state.
Under Nixon and Ford primacy in foreign policymaking was seized by Henry Kissinger. He ran foreign policy from the White House as national security adviser during the first Nixon term, then from the State Department when he moved over there in 1973. The State Department itself counted for less during the Kissinger era than ever before.
Under Carter a worse situation developed. Zbigniew Brzezinski at the White House and Cyrus Vance at the State Department became rival generators of foreign policy of about equal stature and influence. Sometimes one prevailed. Sometimes the other. They pursued conflicting lines of policy -- Brzezinski being the activist and Vance the diplomat. It is obvious that Brzezinski favored military action against Iran whereas Vance opposed any military action so strongly that he resigned when he was overruled.
The result has been wild vacillation and confusion. Neither friends and allies nor rivals in the outside world could know from one day to the next what to expect from Washington. The Carter record is littered with policies launched one day and abandoned the next. Inconsistency and uncertainty have frustrated friends and delighted those less well disposed.
The White House is bound to make final decisions in foreign policy. But it is not necessary to have rival institutions, even to the point of rival press spokesmen. The president is entitled to a personal special adviser if he wants one. But if US foreign policy is to be restored to coherence there must be a coordination and a single public voice. Secretary-designate Muskie thinks that he is to be "the foreign policy spokesman" from now on. If he is, the result should be more consistency and continuity in US foreign policy.
For two reasons things may work out that way. Mr. Vance resigned over the matter of duality and thus underlined the problem. And Mr. Muskie comes from the Senate and enjoys the confidence of his colleagues there. Hence he has more political weight at the White House than any unelected person of academic background. Mr. Muskie's chances of actually being "the spokesman" are therefore moderately good.