Republican administrations have been more successful than Democratic -- at least since World War II -- in defusing conflict with the USSR. President Reagan, if he wishes, can build upon masterful precedents set by Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford.
Democrats -- from Woodrow Wilson through Jimmy Carter -- have excelled at idealistic conceptions and exhortations; Republicans have proved more efficacious in deeds, no matter how stumbling their press conferences.
To be sure, Franklin Roosevelt presided over the most friendly era in US-Soviet history, the alliance against fascism, but this coalition fell apart in 1945-47 as Harry Truman faced off against Stalin. President Eisenhower initiated US efforts to move from cold war to detente when he agreed to meet Soviet party chairman Khrushchev in 1955, giving birth to a "spirit of Geneva." Ike also welcomed Khrushchev to Camp David in 1959, marking the first time a top Soviet (or Russian) leader stepped onto American soil. To make these gestures Eisenhower had to overrule many hard-liners within the Republican Party, including Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, but he believed such explorations right and exerted the leadership to pursue them.
Eisenhower's record was not unmixed. He permitted Dulles's oratory about "rolling back the Iron Curtain" and the "immorality" of nonalignment.He also permitted Allen Dulles to plot what became the Bay of Pigs.
On balance, however, Eisenhower was probably our most effective president in foreign policy since World War II. His legacy includes the Korean armistice; a refusal to send US troops to Vietnam; efforts to apply the Marshall Plan experience in Europe to the third world; the first technical arms limitation conferences (1958); our first arms treaty with Moscow and others (Antartica 1959 ). Ike also refused to be stampeded into superfluous arms spending by cries of "bomber gap" or "missile gap." When he believed it necessary to act with force, however, he did so quickly and effectively (Guatemala and Lebanon). He also saw the importance of aerial surveillance to arms control -- what we now call "national means of verification" -- and started the U-2 flights over Russia and planned the satellite observations that followed.
John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson also sought detente and arms limitation with the USSR, but their administrations will be more known for massive arms buildups than for arms control; for the Berlin and Cuban missile confrontations bringing us to the brink; and for launching the Indo- China debacle.
Nixon took more than four years to terminate the Vietnam involvement, but he normalized relations with China and concluded SALT I and other far-reaching accords with Moscow. He and Henry Kissinger saw the futility of continued arms racing. ("What in God's name is superiority?" asked Kissinger.) They also grasped a more subtle point, one that eluded congressional critics of SALT: that strategic equivalence would be found in a combination of asymmetries, never in identical arsenals, for each country has its own assets and problems. With China they put into effect a strategy of GRIT -- graduated reciprocation in tension-reduction -- that led from trade and Ping-Pong to toasts in the Celestial City. With Moscow they saw the value of building a seamless web of ties enmeshing both sides in positive rather than negative interactions. If we are interdependent, they asked, hostage to each other's nuclear trigger -- why not make the most of it?
Nixon and Kissinger also saw that policy must be based on a blend of power and diplomacy. To enhance this mix they utilized threats and offers; bargaining chips and linkage; bombs in Vietnam and blondes in Hollywood. No doubt they carried their double and triple games to excess, but the underlying concept -- utilizing both force and the bargaining table -- was masterful. Gerald Ford had less chance to try out this admixture, but he came close to concluding a SALT II accord -- one that would probably have been approved if put to the Senate in 1975 or 1976.
Jimmy Carter, like his Democratic predecessors, crusaded for high ideals but became infuriated when the world did not meet his standards. The Kremlin, of course, had shifted to a harder line in Angola and elsewhere even before Carter became President. But his human rights pressures and total disarmament talk struck Moscow as hypocritical propaganda. And while Soviet leaders bear some grudging respect for the capitalist (usually Republican) who goads material progress, they have only loathing for noncommunist leaders (usually Democrats) who claim to back the common man.
If President Reagan chooses, he can build on the same principles that made Eisenhower and Nixon effective in dealing with Moscow. Already the Kremlin has forgotten his election oratory and argues that the American public has rejected Carter because of his anti-Soviet and other foreign policies. Moscow will test the possibilities of an accord with the new administration, just as it did with the arch anticommunist Richard Nixon in 1969.
While Reagan has a mandate to reestablish US power in the world, American opinion would certainly welcome an era of negotiation rather than belligerency. Reagan might even conclude (as Kennedy did in 1961) that the balance of power has not deteriorated so badly as many people said. The West, after all, still has twice as many strategic nuclear warheads as the USSR and more than twice the GNP per capita.
Reagan is less experienced in world affairs than Eisenhower or Nixon. He will depend more on advisers and delegation of responsibility. The quality of advice he solicits and how he responds to it will therefore be crucial to US- Soviet relations. His broad mandate requires that he consider the entire spectrum of opinion, but one can only hope that President Reagan will lean toward the centrist and innovative orientation that made Eisenhower and Nixon so effective in dealing with Moscow.