What is America's vision?
It is possible to be overly critical of a US president's foreign policy. If his diplomats can plug away at thorny problems and keep the world at peace, that is doing much in today's turbulent environment. By this standard the record of the Reagan administration is not without pluses.
Yet it has now been over a year since Ronald Reagan took office and one must recognize the frustration at home and abroad with many aspects of US diplomacy. There is still no strong guidance of American foreign policy and no clear idea of where the United States is going. To be sure, Ronald Reagan has made plain his determination to redress the eroding balance of military power with the Russians and to restore America's overall dominance in the world. Policy under the hand of Alexander Haig is rhetorically more assertive.
But so far a ''get-tough-with-the-Russians'' strategy -- a strategy focusing largely on military solutions -- does not seem to have yielded much in the way of diplomatic gains. The general peace has not been breached, but neither has the international community moved closer together. While the administration has put peripheral questions on center stage, the larger issues seem to go unattended. Many thoughtful people are concerned about gaps in policy and about the consequences if they are not soon addressed:
* In the Middle East, the Reagan administration launched forth at once on a policy of convincing the countries of the region to join in a collective security system against a Russian threat. That had very limited success. Washington no longer talks about ''strategic consensus.'' However, while shuttle diplomacy is now in train to stave off war in Lebanon, there is no long-range US plan for solving the Palestinian problem which lies at the heart of instability in the region. Meantime, tensions grow in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, threatening further hostilities and violence.
* In Western Europe, allied relations are going through a very difficult period. Washington and its partners do not see eye to eye on such crucial issues as Poland, East-West trade, detente, the economy, arms control, defense expenditures. The differences are leading some to ask how enduring the Western alliance is -- or should be. In our view, it remains the cornerstone of world peace. But it is clear that changing conditions in Western Europe -- and globally -- demand a rethinking of the post-World War II order and perhaps a new concept of NATO, its functions and objectives.
* Washington's relations with the People's Republic of China remain strained over the issue of Taiwan, and now its ties with Japan are in a state of tension -- an almost absurd situation in which the US stands to alienate the two dominant powers of Asia at a time when the Russians are expanding their influence in the area. The administration has shown an appreciation of the strategic importance of the Sino-American relationship, yet seems unable to come to grips with the issue of long-term weapons transfers to Taiwan in a way that reassures Peking. As US-China ties fray, meantime, the Russians see a diplomatic opportunity. Leonid Brezhnev is holding out an olive branch to the Soviet Union's former partner and, while it is unlikely China will ever again become so closely allied with Moscow, an improvement of Sino-Soviet relations would reduce US influence in Peking.
The drift in these and other areas of foreign policy is traceable in large part to domestic politics. Alexander Haig not only keeps one eye on such congressional superhawks as Senator Jesse Helms. Within the White House and Cabinet bureaucracy itself he is constantly having to fight a rearguard action against rivals who are even more militant than he and, though having little experience in foreign affairs, seek to determine how the State Department shall be run and what US policy shall be. Mr. Reagan's new national security adviser, William Clark, is trying to end the feuding and bring order to the management of foreign policy. It remains to be seen how his efforts work out.
To those who believe in continuity of American foreign policy, the partisanship of the Reagan administration is especially worrisome. Instead of a coming together of Republicans and Democrats for the purpose of reaching a consensus on a well-defined, intelligent policy that can be sustained over a period of years, debate rages within the Republican bureaucracy between those who are prepared to let the US go it alone in the world -- the so-called unilateralists -- and those who, no less fervent in their anti-Sovietism, nonetheless want to preserve the Western alliance and work together with other nations (as does Secretary Haig). The fact that Mr. Reagan, concentrating on the economy, has not involved himself forcefully in foreign affairs has tended to add to the general muddle.
Though the picture may be somber, there are some hopeful developments. The US has returned to the important Law of the Sea negotiations, for instance. It is talking again about restarting the strategic nuclear arms talks. It has initiated a program to foster economic development in the Carribean Basin. And, while it has made Central America a dubious battleground in its confrontation with the Soviet Union, it now appears willing to follow the advice of the Europeans and the Latin American nations and negotiate peace in the region. Public opinion no doubt has much to do with these signs of flexibility.
But much of the world still does not have the sense of an American purpose beyond that of bolstering US defenses to counter what is perceived to be an overriding Soviet threat. There is little articulation of how America's strength -- moral, economic, political, military -- can be used positively to make the world a better place. To end degrading poverty. To meet the aspirations of humanity for social justice and equality of opportunity. To nourish ties with friends and reduce conflicts with adversaries. To help influence authoritarian governments, left and right, in the direction of freedom and democracy. To foster global unity rather than division. To curb the awesome arms race and promote true peace.
What, in short, is America's vision?