One theme dominated Ronald Reagan's foreign policy agenda when he entered the Oval Office: Make America strong and respected in the world again. The Carter presidency, for all its concrete diplomcatic achievements, had left a perception at home and abroad of lack of coherence and steadiness in United States policy and of weakness in America's posture. It was an image President Reagan set out to reverse.

''Our days of weakness are over,'' the President proudly declared recently.

''Our military forces are back on their feet and standing tall.''

Today it is widely agreed that Mr. Reagan has bolstered the nation's image as a more assertive military power. But whether the US now stands more highly regarded abroad than three years ago is open to question. In the view of many diplomatic and other experts, Reagan's foreign policy has been marked by an overemphsis on rhetoric and image, a lack of creative thinking, a tendency to resort to military force over diplomatic solutions, and intrabureaucratic struggles.

It is significant, however, that notwithstanding, his strong ideologiccal views and a desire to distance himself from the Carter presidency, Reagan has not jettisoned the broad policies pursued by his Democratic and republican predecessors. He has in fact shown a certain realism and capacity for accommodation. Thus, despite his earlier opposition to it, Reagan embraced the Panama Canal Treaty. Despite his clear sympathies for Taiwan, he has continued the policy of improving ties with the People's Republic of China. Despite his military actions in Central America, he is prepared to commit resources to help reorient governments there. And, though late in the day, he is trying to deal with the nuclear arms race.

''Mr. Reagan's actions are more in the mainstream of post-World War II policy than his rhetoric suggests,'' says former US Secretary of State Dean Rusk. "The President, personally and in his actions, is quite calm."

Even on the rhetorical front, the President has accommodated himself to criticism and toned down his language.

Asked by Time magazine editors recently whether he though his characterization of the Soviet Union as the "focus of evil" was appropriate, he replied: "No, I would not say things like that again, even after some of the things that have done recently."

But in terms of specific accomplishment, the President has little to show at the end of three years. There are no major victories. In the Middle East an Arab-Israeli peace remains as elusive as ever and the presence of US troops in Lebanon presents Reagan with his first foreign policy vulnerability. Relations with the Soviet Union are at their coolest in many years. Arms control talks in various forums have been broken off. Central America is no nearer a political solution. An American initiative on the Namibian [Southwest African] question has gone nowhere. The closet thing to a diplomatic success has been an improvement of ties with the countries of East Asia.

"It's a poor record," comments Charles W. Maynes, editor of Foreign Policy magazine and a former State Department official in the Carter administration.

"People may feel we are stronger, but the world is just as dreary," says a presidential scholar.

Fortunately, the President has not had to deal with any massive crises in the world. Fortunate because reagan relegated foreign policy to the back burner when he came into office in order to concentrate on the US economy and domestic problems. It was more than a year and half before he launched the strategic arms reduction talks.

Fortunate, too, because Reagan had no experience in foreign affairs and needed to learn on the job. Even today there are profound gaps in his knowledge of global affairs that bewilder world leaders. His public statements on the Middle East and other sensitive issues are often studded with factual errors, pointing to his known disinterest in detail.

Most troubling to leaders abroad is the perception that Reagan tends to see every problem in the context of an East-West struggle, without understanding the historical, social, and other forces that have shaped the contemporary world.

"I don't think there is a great understanding of what motivates the third-world countries or the frustrations they feel," remarks a Western diplomat. "The concept that nations have to do what the US wants in order to be friends is very ideological -- and dangerous."

This bothers many within the US government as well.

"He still has a simplistic, one-dimensional view of the world," says a ranking administration official. "The Russians are the enemy and everything is subordinated to that perception. He may quiet his rhetoric for the sake of expediency, but he still believesm they are the evil guys and we're the good ones."

Because of that deeply held view, and because of a perceived weakness in the West's military posture, Reagan was determined from the outset to rearm America before launching any initiatives with the Soviets.

This he has done, greatly accelerating defense spending in order to strengthen conventional forces and beef up strategic arsenals with such new systems as the MX missile, the B-1 bomber, and the Trident II missiles -- all programs started under the Carter administration.

Always the astute politican, Reagan won broad bipartisan support for his program even though a presidential commission acknowledged that there was no "window of vulnerability" in the strategic balance. Democrats and Republicans alike felt that the US armed forces needed modernizing in the face of the Soviet military buildup and gave the President a free hand.

Critics argue, however, that while modernization is needed, the pace at which it is taking place is excessive. Not only is the swift defense buildup creating severe budget problems. High-ranking military officers warn that the rearmament may be at the expense of logistics, training for skills, and combat readiness.

William W. Kaufmann, a defense expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says that the hectic rise in procurements will cause difficulties down the road. One is that the share of the defense budget allocated for operations and maintenance is declining. Another is that such an enormous backlog of obligatory authority is being built into the budget and so many contracts let out that it will be virtually impossible to slow down in the future.

"Over the long term this creates a terrible problem," says Dr. Kaufmann, "because when you buy this way you guarantee obsolescence. And I do not see either a threat from Soviet capability or a general military situation that warrants this."

But the President was not to be deterred from a massive military expansion calcuated to redress perceived US weakensses and enhance the US image in the world. And, in part to secure American public acceptance of the buildup and the heavy economic cost it has entailed, Reagan has railed against the Russians and hammered at the Soviet threat.

Many Western leaders and experts on the Soviet Union feel that following Soviet incursions into Africa, the brutal invasion of Afghanistan, and the squelching of the free trade union movement in Poland, the time had indeed come for a more robust US stance toward Moscow. They have welcomed the US firmness on deployment of medium-range missiles in Europe, the invasion of Grenada, and in general the greater willingness to apply military force as a clear American message to the Russians that the days of easy Soviet gains around the world are over.

"Reagan has done fairly well in telling the Russians not to throw their weight around," says Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a former State Department official now at the Brookings Institution. "And if the tone of US-Soviet relations is bad, it's not as bad as in the days of the cold war. The Russians are being cautious."

Still, the President's policies have generated concern at home and abroad about an apparent inability to accompany military pressures with effective diplomatic moves. The break in the arms control momentum is viewed with dismay.

Of paramount concern is the issue of global peace. many experienced diplomats and public officials, with no illusions about the nature of the Soviet system, believe the administration has handled the superpower relationship poorly. The breakdown of arms control talks and the step-up in US development of space weaponry are viewed with dismay.

"President Reagan has had his fair chance, and he can no longer expect Americans to support policies that make our relationship with the Soviet Union more dangerous than at any time in the past generation," wrote former US Ambassador to the Soviet Union W. Averell Harriman in the New York Times recently. "If present developments in nuclear arms and United States-Soveit relations are permitted to continue, we could face not the risk but the reality of nuclear war."

Says Malcolm Toon, who also served as US ambassador to the Soviet Union: "Increasing our military strength was good. But reagan has confused the Russians. He must share the responsibility for the deterioration of relations."

"There's too much talk about doomsday," comments Mr. Rusk. "It has been 38 years since a nuclear bomb was exploded in anger. That's why the ideological rhetoric, on both sides, bothers me. The problem is that one side or the other may begin to believe it and we could be in touble. So there is wisdom in keeping thr rhetoric calm."

"Reagan does not realize the degree to which the Soviets take seriously not what he says in a speech but what he says in private remarks and to evangelicals ," says David D. Newsom, former US undersecreatry of state, "He has difficulty disguising his own feelings. It's hard to project a policy if you don't project consistency."

Americans as a whole also have misgivings about the course of the reagan administration. While the President's overall approval rating in the polls has remained high, and although the Grenada in cursion produced a certain "rally around the flag" effect, his ratings on foreign policy are lower than those on deomestic policy. In some areas, including arms control, they have been declining.

Conscious of these vulnerabilities, White House officials nonetheless maintain that the administration has achieved its major foreign policy goal of bolstering US military strength and today commands more respect abroad.

They put the onus for the strain in US-Soviet relations squarely on Moscow, noting that before the Soviets shot down the KAL commerical jetliner the administration had been planning a summit meeting with Soviet leader Yuri Andropov. They take pride in noting that under the Reagan presidency the US has "not lost one square inch to territory to the cummunists."

"Governments are looking at us in a different light now," says one senior official. "Whe have made clear the US will not be pushed around. Yes there are tensions over arms control, but we're determined to correct the nuclear balance."

The President's White House advisers believe that because of the President's policis profound changes have occurred in Soviet attitudes. It is felt that the Russians now see that the US free-enterprise and democratic system is not going to collapse from intrinsic flaws; that their own economic system is not proving to be a model for other countries; and that their strategy has not undermined the cohesion of the Western alliance. This, in their view, must be forcing a reexamination in Moscow and should produce incentives for arms negotiation.

It is not only the soured US-Soviet relationship that troubles critics, however. The President is faulted for lack of consistent direction in the Middle East, where US policy over three years has been characterized by confusing twists and turns and failure to implement a promising presidential peace initiative. Thus, he first launched a policy of "strategic consensus" among Israel and the moderate Arabs, then watched relations with Israel deteriorate in the aftermath of the Lebanon invasion that he did nothing to forestall, and now is again taling strategic cooperation with Israel.

"The administation has never recovered fully in the Middle East from an ideological approach which, if not wrong, is highly simplistic," says Mr. Newsom , director of Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. "The glee with which it embraced the Israeli move into Lebanon as a victory for Western democracy showed its ignorance of what would and did happen.

Part of the reason for the uncertainty and lack of achievement in world affairs can be attributed to organizational turmoil and divided government. In three years Reagan has had two secretaries of state and three national security advisers. Within the bureaucracy there have been constant conflicts, especially beteen the White House and the National Securtiy Council staff on the one hand and the State Department on the other. There has also been a running tug of war among White House aides between the conservatives and the "pragmatists," making it difficult to formulate and implement policy. While all of the President's aides are conservative in outlook, the so-called realists are prepared to make concessions for the sake of diplomatic progress rather than have no progress at all.

Since the appointment of Mr. McFarlane to head up the National Security Council following the resignation of William P. Clark, the internecine squabbling has visibly diminished. Secretary of State George P. Shultz now appears in firm command of foreign policy making. But during his tenure Mr. Shultz has spent much of his time containing crises -- such as the dispute with West European allies over the sale of equipment for the Siberian pipeline -- and some key issues, including arms control, have been left to others.

"Things are better in terms of internal peace," says one expert. "But there is still little geopolitical thinking going on. There seems to be no one with a conceptual input. They're just 'ad-hoc-ing' foreign policy."

Putting the best cast on the Reagan presidency, however, experts feel the President deserves credit for focusing on the economy and for going ahead with the rebuilding of US defense begun under President Carter.

"Reagan has stayed in the mainstream of foreign policy, and the record of economic and military strength is helpful to our relations abroad," says Theodore L. Eloit Jr., dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. "There are no positive accomplishments -- but neither has anything awful happened."

Next: Lifting the tone of society

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