Sen. Richard G. Lugar's quest for a new American foreign policy consensus has been launched yesterday with the top two foreign policy officials in the Cabinet strongly restating Reagan administration aims. As the initial witnesses before a packed hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, US Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger urged public and congressional support of toughness, patience, and flexibility in dealing with international challenges. Spirited reactions from Democrats on the committee indicated that the consensus sought by committee chairman Lugar may be difficult to achieve.
The Indiana Republican is conducting a comprehensive, month-long review of US foreign policy in what he says is part of a broad effort at public education -- the first such effort, says Senator Lugar, since 1961.
Mr. Shultz, the first witness, said the US must be more willing to use force to defend its democratic values and its foreign policy interests. He said the nation ``must be wise and prudent in deciding how and where to use our power,'' adding, ``The direct American use of force must always be a last resort.''
Responding to questions, Shultz said the administration was united on its approach to new arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union, and he predicted that the unity would continue.
Committee spokesmen say the principal objective of the hearings will be to identify themes and objectives which can be made the basis for a national foreign policy consensus. The spokesmen say they hope that by providing an ``inventory of first principles'' the hearings will help narrow partisan division which many here cite as a legacy of the Vietnam war. A need for consensus has been underscored in recent years as Congress and successive administrations have deadlocked on major issues, including arms control and Central America.
The problem has become so serious that twice since President Reagan took office, bipartisan commissions have been set up to define the middle ground necessary to secure congressional approval of two major administration initiatives -- aid to Central America and the MX missile.
Experts here say, however, that forging a consensus will be difficult. ``It's been tried in the past,'' says Pat Holt, former staff director of the Foreign Relations Committee. But the only time it worked well was in the immediate post- World War II years, he said, ``when a basic foreign policy consensus already existed.'' Mr. Holt says the committee now represents a wider range of ideological positions than at any time in the recent past, ``from conservative Republican Jesse Helms [of North Carolina] to liberal Democrat Christopher Dodd [of Connecticut].''
He adds that the committee staff itself is more politicized, reflecting a general trend in Congress toward increased partisanship at the staff level. With the departure of aides to former chairman Charles Percy (R) of Illinois, the new majority staff appointed by Lugar shifted ``two-thirds of the way to the right,'' says one congressional source. Under the circumstances, finding consensus within the committee, let alone within the country at large, says Holt, will be an uphill effort.
Others note that highly divisive issues like the nuclear freeze and possible normalization of relations with Cuba are almost certain to tug at committee unity.
``Before it can forge a consensus in congressional and national opinion,'' says Holt, ``the committee will have to rise above its own internal divisions.'' The best the committee may be able to hope for, he adds, is a ``centrist majority'' rather than an actual consensus.
``We don't expect miracles,'' says a committee staff member, but he says he feels the hearings, and Lugar's personal skills as broker between competing interests, could help the committee regain some of its lost stature. Even as Congress has carved out a major new role in foreign policy-making in recent years, the influence of the Foreign Relations Committee has waned. One problem has been frequent changes at the top, as four successive chairmen have been defeated in reelection bids over the past 10 years. A more important factor has been the fragmentation of authority within the Senate generally, allowing more members and more committees to acquire pieces of the foreign policy action.
Symptomatic of the committee's problems has been the failure to reach agreement during the past three years on foreign aid legislation broadly acceptable to the Senate. As a result, increasing authority for foreign aid has passed to the Senate and House Appropriations Committees.
``Consensus is always hard to find,'' says I. M. Destler of the Institute for International Economics. Lugar could make the Foreign Relations Committee a more important force in the Senate again, says Mr. Destler, ``if he is willing to give priority to developing positions that have broad, committee support, even if this means compromising his preferences.''
The testimony of Shultz and Weinberger at hearings designed to foster consensus was set against a background of highly publicized differences between the two Cabinet members on issues ranging from arms control to the role of US military force in world affairs. Experts say the Shultz-Weinberger split runs as deep as widely noted disagreements during the Carter administration between Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.
But in testimony Thursday the two secretaries closed ranks in support of administration policy.