NO nation can -- or should -- shape its policies just to benefit other nations' leaders, however friendly. But neither should any great power publicly slap another nation's leader in the face when the latter is doing his or her best in a fast-moving crisis. By sending an envoy to mend fences in Rome and Cairo, the White House and State Department have tacitly admitted to fracturing the latter rule in the Achille Lauro case.
On the northern shore of the Mediterranean, probably the ablest prime minister in Western Europe, Italy's Bettino Craxi, faces the frustration and delay of having to create a new administration.
On the southern shore, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak has gained domestic popularity from the Washington fray. But that provides little comfort in the Oval Office. Mubarak's predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser, likewise profited at home after Secretary of State John Foster Dulles sowed the seeds of the 1956 Suez War by publicly and self-righteously (rather than privately and calmly) retaliating over Cairo's nationalization of the Suez Canal.
The Reagan administration, remembering the dramatic Nasser swing into the Soviet camp that followed, is rightly mending fences in Cairo this week.
Like it or not, relations between states are a matter of personal relations among leaders as well as economic, ideological, moral, and military interests.
That raises a point worth pondering as Mr. Reagan joins leaders of some 80 nations at the United Nations this week. To put it bluntly, the US has been making the least of a 14-karat opportunity at the UN during much of the past decade and a half. During that period, with a few exceptions, Washington has not sent ambassadors to the UN who have had the stature (or inclination) to befriend and influence the future leaders of many nations.
Historically, many UN ambassadors and delegates from other nations have later become foreign ministers, prime ministers, or presidents of their countries. Yet, in recent years, America's envoys have not cultivated close relationships with those matriculating there.
Over the 40-year span of UN history, the golden age of US effectiveness probably occurred in the late 1950s and 1960s. Before that, the UN was a tight little club that often reflected US interests, but was far from universal in membership. During the ambassadorships of Henry Cabot Lodge, Adlai Stevenson, and Arthur Goldberg the club burgeoned.
Each of those three figures in American political life did a lot to befriend new leaders and explain American values to them. Lodge was a former senator and early backer of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Stevenson was known worldwide as an orator and two-time presidential candidate. Goldberg was well known as a skilled labor negotiator, cabinet member, and supreme court justice. Stevenson and Goldberg were effective despite frustration with their declining influence on the Oval Office.
Andrew Young and Donald McHenry, successive black envoys, revived American influence among third world ambassadors in the late 1970s. But their performance was the exception in an era when US appointees seemed either to fear a hostile third world majority or inclined to help create one. This attitude sometimes sowed doubt even among ambassadors closely allied to the US.
The problem is easy to describe, harder to solve. Administrations in Washington wisely do not want to create a third center for formulating US foreign policy.
The two existing centers -- State Department and White House National Security Council -- create friction enough without a third independent voice. So the UN ambassador, like all other ambassadors follows instructions from the State Department. That was not always so. Warren Austin and Henry Cabot Lodge often initiated policies or consulted directly with the president. And it was that history which persuaded Stevenson and Goldberg to take the post.
How, then, can an administration find a person of stature, able to win friends among future leaders, and eloquent at defending the national interest, who at the same time is willing to follow orders from an assistant secretary of state.
It's no snap to find such a paradoxical paragon. But the search is worth the extra effort by any US administration.
Each new White House team ought to remember that many rising political stars, particularly in the third world, are inclined to revolutionary behavior. But their model is seldom Lenin's, as many fear. More often it's Jefferson's and Lincoln's, with a dash of Adam Smith hybridized by Rajiv Gandhi, Deng Xiaoping or Lee Kwan Yew.
The descendants of Jefferson need continually to establish their nation's identification with the spirit of his revolutionary declaration. Where better to do so than at a gathering place of the world's representatives?
Earl W. Foell is editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor.