American Secretary of State George Shultz is in Southeast Asia this week to visit with leaders in places like Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Jakarta. Next week he will be in New Zealand.
This is not really a vacation. He will be talking first with the friendly nonwhite countries of Southeast Asia which have grouped themselves together as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN. Then he meets with the friendly white countries of the same area, Australia and New Zealand, which associate directly with the US in ANZUS - Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.
The two groups are friendly with each other, but the nonwhite countries prefer to keep a little distance from the US. There is no mutual defense treaty with the US. They are not official allies. Australia and New Zealand are official allies.
These meetings will be no pink tea parties for Mr. Shultz, but the trip tells us much about Washington's present list of priorities. It tells us that the big features in US foreign policy over the past three years have been put on ice and nearly blanked out of the news for the duration of the presidential election campaign.
What have you been reading or hearing of late about the Middle East? Almost nothing. Israel is coming up to an election. Future Israeli foreign policy may turn on the outcome. But the US is keeping hands off, and out of sight. Washington has done nothing to make a headline about US actions in the Middle East since the Marines were withdrawn from Lebanon.
And what do you hear about Central America? You learn that the American government is actually negotiating with representatives of Nicaragua, that the contras are running short of US funds and pulling back from their forays into Nicaragua, that a settlement might be achieved with the Sandinistas, that Honduras is expelling contras from Honduran territory and wants the US to train Salvadorean soldiers somewhere other than in Honduras.
And what about US relations with the Soviets? How long is it since Washington was practicing or favoring any new form of pressure, economic or otherwise, against the Soviets? Instead, talks have been resumed about opening consulates in each other's big cities. And Washington has insisted that it will be in Vienna in September at Moscow's suggestion to talk about limits on space weapons.
Those three subjects - Middle East, Central America, and East-West relations - have been making most of the foreign policy news out of Washington from the time Mr. Reagan took office till the dawn of this election year.
So what does a secretary of state who has been wrestling over policy toward these three areas have to do these days in Washington? Practically nothing. And that in itself is a holiday for Mr. Shultz. He does not have to sit up nights thinking up new ways of putting new pressures on Moscow, or on Syria, or on Nicaragua, or even on Fidel Castro.
In Washington's present mood there are hardly any foreign enemies - except, of course, the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran and Colonel Qaddafi in Libya. But the first is being held in check by Iraq and the second has done nothing newly outrageous for months. He made the news recently only by being the target of an unsuccessful assassination plot.
So it is safe, and may well be useful, for Mr. Shultz to enjoy relief from the really serious problems of a Reagan-shaped world and spend time among friends who have grievances, largely manageable, against the US, but are bound to remain friendly regardless of grievances.
Among the ASEAN countries, he will have to try to explain away the fact that the US encourages them to become modern and productive, but finds many ways of keeping the goods they produce out of American markets. In New Zealand he may find himself talking with members of a government that has just lost an election but does not leave office for another week. The election is on July 14. The ANZUS meeting begins on July 16. The present government is trailing in the polls.
To you or me that does not sound much like a vacation. For Mr. Shultz it probably means a fortnight in the Elysian fields.