A wise diplomat from a friendly United States ally was asked what his country expected would be the main foreign policies of the Reagan administration which had just taken office.
That depends, was the reply, on how soon or how long they take about their decisions. The number of mistakes, he went on, will be higher among the early decisions than among the later ones.
This rule tends to apply whether there is a change in party at the White House. The new administration is under political pressure to be different in order to justify its campaign criticisms of the party in the power. The new men hurry to "clean up the mess" and prove that they are better and different.
The Reagan administration is still in the phase of emphasizing its differences in foreign policy. It still talks about doing more for Taiwan. Its rhetoric still heavily pro-Israel against the Arabs in the Middle East. It still sounds as though it wants to revive the "cold war."
But its decisions begin to show the impact on campaign rhetoric of growing acquiantance with some of the facts of world life. The effect is that of a rip tide. There is turbulence and contradiction. Critics assert, with reason, that Reagan foreign policy is in a state of confusion and chaos. The real explanation is that it is in a state of transition from campaign postures to responsibility.
This makes for frustration among those who wish for a clear, concise statement of foreign policy. It would be quite impossible to draw up such a statement today and have it mean much about tomorrow, or next year. To make the attempt leads into trouble.
For example, William G. Hyland, who was on President Ford's foreign policy staff, had a try at it on behalf of the administration in the Washington Post of July 2. He claims that there is "a foreign policy that hangs together: its connecting tissue is a prudent conservatism: wary of new commitments, a little ragged in style and rhetoric, but careful in practice." And its foundation stone , says Mr. Hyland, "is the return of Soviet relations to the core of the American policy."
We have several examples of what it means to put Soviet relations at the "core of American foreign policy."
There is El Salvador where the administration started out assuming that all the trouble is due to Soviet export of arms to rebel guerrillas in the back woods. So it stepped up arms shipments and sent in military advisers. This was done in spite of repeated assertions by leaders of the El Salvador government that their problem is economic, not military.And on July 1 the president of El Salvador himself, Jose Napoleon Duarte, declared that businessmen, most of them now in the United States, have mounted their "final offensive" to try to overthrow his government and bring back the old order.
Then there is Pakitan which the Reagan administration is trying to rearm on the theory that the arms will be used to bolster Southwest Asia against the Soviets. But Pakistan is maneuvering to avoid trouble with the Soviets. It welcomes the arms -- at the right price -- but its real enemy is India. The chances are that if those weapons are ever used it will be against India, not against the Soviets.
India is sensitive on the subject of US arms to Pakistan, and doubly so when Washington begins talking about arms to China. To India this means the danger of encirclement by a Sino-Pakistani alliance backed by the United States. India is the second most populous country in the world and the only large country in Asia which can truly be considered a democracy. In thinking about arming Pakistan and China it would be prudent to think also in terms of relations with India.
China itself has downgraded rearmament apparently on the assumption that economic modernization should have first priority. Pakistan is one of the world's most impoverished countries. Its ability to defend itself and play a world role depends far more on economic modernization and development than on weapons.
Mr. Hyland gets an E for effort in trying to define Reagan foreign policy, but he does not tell us what it will be a year from now because no one could, least of all Mr. Reagan himself. Foreign policy evolves. It does not declare itself. Reagan foreign policy is evolving pragmatically. We can define it four years from now, but not today. My own guess is that Mr. Reagan will be reviving detente, under some o ther name, before the next presidential election year.