WHEN Alexander M. Haig was secretary of state, he gave a live television interview to Japanese journalists. For the last question, one of the Japanese correspondents asked General Haig about reports of friction between himself and the secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger. Haig dismissed the reports, denying such differences. Why, he said, he and Weinberger sat down to breakfast amicably together every week. Then with an engaging grin, he added: ``And there's nobody there except the two of us -- and our food tasters.''
What General Haig was attempting to dismiss with humor were the differences over foreign policy that have existed between the State and Defense Departments in the Reagan administration. They existed between Haig and Weinberger, they exist between Haig's successor, George P. Shultz, and Weinberger. Such differences between the two most powerful departments in the government are not peculiar to the Reagan administration. They have existed in many previous administrations.
Some would argue that they are not necessarily bad; that it is healthy, in a government as large and as powerful as that of the United States, for the President to be exposed to strongly differing points of view before he makes a decision.
Although neither Shultz nor Weinberger will discuss their differences, it is evident that their strongest disagreement is over the use of American force abroad.
With a long successful background as a mediator, Shultz is inclined to the solution-oriented approach, rather than the confrontational, in foreign policy.
Weinberger, not unlike some other secretaries of defense before him, has taken a much harder and more negative line on negotiations with the Soviet Union, and has taken a tough line on Central America.
Ironically it is Shultz, the longtime mediator, who has championed the use of force, under certain circumstances, and Weinberger, who controls a vast array of weaponry, who has been reluctant to use it.
It is not such a contradiction as it first appears.
Shultz believes that although force should never be used impulsively or unthinkingly, it goes hand in hand with diplomacy and the US must have the resolve to use it. Without such backup resolve, he reasons, diplomacy is frail and ineffective.
Weinberger, after the American experience in Vietnam, is much more loath to commit American military power, and then only under circumstances extremely favorable to American success. Says one observer of the maneuvering: ``State is ready to use small-scale force. The Pentagon likes those big-budget bucks, but wants them to prepare for the large-scale war it basically thinks it will never have to fight.''
With American policy in Nicaragua in the headlines every day, new urgency attaches to such questions as: Should the US intervene in the affairs of other nations? Should it do so directly or through intermediaries? Is force ever justified?
Whether nations should or should not meddle in the affairs of others, they do it all the time. The Soviets seized Afghanistan by force and occupy much of Eastern Europe; the Vatican deals in Poland through religious suasion; the US uses political leverage in the Philippines, South Korea, South Africa, and El Salvador; the ASEAN nations offer military help to oust Vietnam from Kampuchea; the British and French use economic heft to influence events in former colonies.
Sometimes the motivation is base, sometimes it is altruistic. The fact is that such involvements will continue. When is the use of force permissible? The United States, at the request of Caribbean nations, used force in Grenada and was successful in neutralizing a harmful regime. At the request of the Beirut government, it used military power in Lebanon and failed to influence the course of events there.
Sometimes morality is the spur, when the United States seeks to shore up a teetering democracy; sometimes the impulse is strategic, when American national interests are perceived under threat. And what about rescue missions? Was Israel right to use force to extract hostages from Idi Amin's Uganda? Was the aborted American attempt to rescue hostages from Iran a legitimate use of power?
There is no advance formula, no easy answer to these questions of when, and where, and under what circumstances, American power should be employed. Diverse opinions will swirl both inside and outside government. And that may not be all bad.