The Reagan realism abroad

The more things change the more they remain the same. So it is with the emerging foreign policy of the new Reagan administration. Major elements of it have yet to be hammered out, of course. The White House is still groping. Judgments are premature. But what can be seen so far indicates more continuity with the past than discontinuity -- and, significantly, mor pragmatism than Ronald Reagan's campaign oratory and ideological views would have suggested. The signs are encouraging:

* Despite the tough rhetoric against the Soviet Union, the President has agreed to resume European medium-range missile negotiations with the Russians by the end of the year and has even written a letter to Leonid Brezhnev calling for wide-ranging dialogue. The communique issued at the end of this week's NATO meeting took a tougher position on East-West relations than in the past. But the basic and desirable goal of arms control remains in place.

* The NATO allies also managed to secure US acquiescence to a statement that "genuine nonalignment" of third-world nations is important for world stability. This is a decided evolution from Mr. Reagan's earlier positions on North-South relations and his tendency to view third-world problems in the context of East-West confrontation. His secretary of state even spoke of the importance of providing developing nations with economic assistance.

* In the Middle East, following Secretary Haig's trip, there is now greater stress on continuing the Egyptian-Israeli peace process, despite the initial preoccupation with countering the Russians. Plans are under way to form a multilateral force to patrol Sinai after Israel's withdrawal from Sinai as called for by the treaty negotiated during the Carter administration. And while the wisdom of selling sophisticated AWACs to Saudi Arabia can be questioned, the administration decision to do so indicates an understanding of the strategic implications of keeping Saudi Arabia's friendship and a willingness to take a bold step that is unpopular in Israel.

In another development, the administration is relying on its professional diplomats to help prevent a confrontation between Syria and Israel in Lebanon. Earlier statements from the White House seemed to give a green light to Israel in Lebanon. But the administration is now in process of using the same kind of diplomatic pressures to forestall a blowup of fighting employed by previous administrations.

* In southern Africa the Reagan style is clearly different but the substance of policy thus far is basically the same: to resolve the long-standing Namibia dispute (hopefully by talking softer than harder to South Africa), to make sure the US has the cooperation of the black-ruled frontline states, and to maintain good ties with oil-rich Nigeria. The "tilt" toward South Africa is not as sharp as had been expected.

* There has been no wholesale rush to sell arms to Taiwan and give greater "officiality" to US-Taiwan relations -- as Mr. Reagan once proposed. On the contrary, these issues have been deferred as Washington has agreed to strengthen its ties with Peking. Like his predecessors, Republican and Democratic, President Reagan has come to see the strategic importance of good Sino-American relations.

* After an initial inclination to cut off American aid to left-leaning Nicaragua, the administration has had second thoughts. It is realized that, as long as independent forces remain there, it is prudent for the US to keep its hand in.

These and other items do not yet add up to a coherent, well-formulated foreign policy. Nor can the Reagan administration claim the steadiness and consistency which it has promised to bring to diplomacy. There, in fact, has been considerable zigging and zagging and a fair amount of confusion in the foreign policy establishment. It is even far from clear whether Alexander Haig will survive his early stumbles and gaffes in office and whether the pragmatists will win out over the ideologues as foreign policy issues are fought out behind the scenes.

But it is significant that Mr. Haig thus far is managing to steer the President away from right-wing conservatism to the less ideological, mainstream middle ground. This is not surprising, given Mr. Reagan's demonstration of flexibility and pragmatism before he came to White House. It is nonetheless heartening to see that the President is learning the complexities of foreign policy issues. Differences of style and stress are expectable as governments change, and indeed can be welcome. But the substance of foreign policy should not change all that much once a president understands the world he lives in.

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