When, during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, Dean Rusk announced, ''We're eyeball to eyeball and I think the other fellow just blinked,'' a new ocular metaphor was added to the language of grand strategy.
Once more there is talk in Washington of getting the other fellow to blink. We are ''eyeball to eyeball'' with the Soviets in Europe. We are seeking to stare down the Syrians in the Middle East and the Nicaraguans and the Cubans in Central America.
To an administration that sees the world largely in bipolar confrontational terms, this metaphor is appealing. It symbolizes the view that adversaries will only negotiate on our terms in the face of steady pressure. It suggests that the object of diplomacy is to cause that flicker of the eye that suggests the other side is giving way.
But ''blinkmanship'' has its flaws.
To approach each major issue as if it were a test of this country's will risks involving us more deeply in problems than may be either prudent or necessary. If we assume our sole role is that of the confrontational superpower defending ''the West,'' our prestige is on the line and our capacity to resolve regional problems is drastically reduced. Lebanon is a good example. The issues are not clear-cut. The Soviet role may be more tenuous than we think. Our allies may not be fully with us.
Once the stare tactic has been employed, an even more difficult question arises: How do you know when the other side has ''blinked''?
The Cuban missile crisis was, in diplomatic terms, relatively simple. The Soviets had placed missiles in Cuba; we wanted them out. Soviet prestige was involved. So, too, were their relations with Cuba. But the issue was peripheral to their vital interests as a nation. The issue was also very specific and the objectives achievable.
The issues we face today are more critical and more complex. The Soviets consider their vital interests are involved in Europe. The Syrians see Lebanon in similar terms. Nicaraguans believe their revolution is threatened by pressures from the Reagan administration. It is more difficult to define what constitutes an acceptable ''blink.'' We are not likely to achieve a total withdrawal of SS-20s in Europe, a voluntary Syrian pullback in Lebanon, or a self-initiated reversal of Sandinista policies in Nicaragua.
Instead, therefore, of clear decisions by our adversaries to resolve the differences with us, we are treated to new Soviet proposals, conciliatory statements, gestures. We are forced to judge whether the time has come to respond or whether a response would be taken only as a sign of weakness. Would the Soviets really negotiate a meaningful arms agreement if we halted the deployment of the intermediate weapons in Europe, for example? Would the Nicaraguans accelerate steps toward democracy if we called off the ''contras''?
There is an understandable tendency in the United States to regard conciliatory moves on the part of our adversaries as suspect. The possibility cannot be ruled out, however, that such gestures are intended to signal a desire for more meaningful contacts and negotiations. If so, a failure on our part to follow up could lead our adversaries to conclude the US had no interest in a settlement short of what could be called a total American victory.
In the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy had the wisdom, once the ''blink'' had been detected, to assist the Soviets in finding a way out. The observer outside the government today has the impression that the ''blink'' we are waiting for is that which suggests capitulation. We may wait a long time.
Diplomacy has an aspect of poker about it. Each side will seek to test the determination and staying power of the other. The object of diplomacy should be, however, the resolution of issues on terms acceptable for both sides, particularly when the issues are as momentous as they are today. There may no longer be occasions for winners and losers. Waiting for actions by the other side that denote a capitulation to US terms can cause us to miss opportunities for settlements that may be short of ideal but that may, as in past settlements, give us, for a considerable period, peace and stability in critical areas.