Consensus and continuity

A democratic government should seek to offset a totalitarian regime's apparent advantage of not having to consult its populace. It does this by forging a voluntary national consensus on security issues like United States relations with the Soviet Union. Such consensus is vital for a democracy. It serves as a bridge from administration to administration. It permits continuity for negotiations, time for absorbing repercussions from mistakes and for resolving confusions -- none of which may neatly fit the four-year, and at times eight-year, US presidential cycle. It is needed to offset the apparent tactical advantage of a totalitarian regime in not having to consult a broad public constituency.

For a democracy, strength of arms and vehemence of rhetoric are not enough. Internal policy conflicts must be resolved. A democracy's ultimate advantage over repressive regimes lies in the consent of the governed.

An administration is greatly benefited by demonstrating a bipartisan, bicameral foundation for its policy. Otherwise an opponent like Mikhail Gorbachev, whose career could outlast those of the next three or four American presidents, would be tempted to wait for a leader more amenable to his aims.

We are reminded of this as we observe Secretary of State George Shultz return from his Vienna meeting with Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko with neither a date nor a place for a summit between the superpower heads of state. Apparently the White House has become the petitioner for such a summit. The Kremlin, knowing that Washington wants a meeting, is putting one into the hopper with the more basic negotiations. What is the price? Both sides in Vienna laid out their grievances. But as far as one can tell, the administration has not yet decided its basic negotiating positions.

Does the White House have a single, consistent Soviet policy? Mr. Shultz talks ``decoupling,'' saying there is to be no linkage between arms control and human rights issues. But in Ottawa this week, another administration official suggested there is indeed such a linkage.

The administration apparently wants it both ways: coupling and decoupling; the freedom to speak harshly at a distance and to meet cordially at a summit; an arms control agreement and its ``star wars'' program.

There does not even seem to be a sense of urgency to seek an internal administration consensus. Differences on policy aired in public are chalked up as expressions of mere ``personal'' opinion.

Obviously if there is to be national consensus, there must be a consistent White House policy. Ideally, the policy should derive from the confluence of public views. And, analytically, here's the rub: There is not yet a partisan, that is, a Republican, consensus, let alone a near prospect of a bipartisan consensus or one between the White House and Congress.

The GOP has not finished its own internal war between the Kissinger d'etente faction and the hard-liners. As a matter of scale, the distance between Jimmy Carter and the Nixon-Ford administrations on Soviet policy was like that of the earth to the moon compared with the earth-sun split within Republican ranks. Part of the appeal in Ronald Reagan's bid to bring Gerald Ford onto his 1980 ticket was to try to put that split behind the party.

Through special commissions, President Reagan was able to reach a domestic agreement on financing the social security system in the immediate years ahead, on a broad Central America policy, and on the troubled MX missile. But Soviet policy rates higher than these issues in explosive potential within the GOP. Who would chair such a commission? Isn't it a president's unique role to decide the fundamentals of pacts with foreign powers?

And yet the logic of not allowing itself to be pressured by time, of arguing that the United States position of today is the most likely to be followed in the future, makes a case for a change of approach by this administration. A position with the backing of previous presidents -- three of whom are active today -- of leaders of both parties in Congress, of respected experts, could only strengthen a president's hand. It would help insulate the issue from the coming political campaigns.

The first round of negotiations in Geneva came up empty. We do not yet know why we should be more optimistic about a second round.

Perhaps Mr. Reagan could break new ground at a meeting with Mr. Gorbachev -- but again we do not know whether a summit will be held, and if one is, whether more than ritual grievances will be aired.

When presidents leave office, they leave their executive authority behind. The great presidents, like Lincoln, have been those who saw the lines of continuity leading toward consensus in the future, even when there was bitter, clouding strife in their own times.

President Reagan may not be able to lead the Kremlin to the table for a substantive agreement. Mr. Gorbachev and company do have a choice in the matter. But Mr. Reagan can help lead Americans to the table by raising the discussion and participation to a level that takes into account the need for consensus and continuity in American foreign policy.

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