KNEE-jerk reflexes make bad foreign policy. Last week the Reagan administration decided to cut off Zimbabwe's aid and thus warn other third- world nations not to ``mess with Uncle Sam.'' Zimbabwe had committed the crime of lese majesty. True, Zimbabwe has behaved badly. It has received a generous $300 million from the United States since nationhood in 1980, more financial help than from anywhere else. But the country and Prime Minister Robert Mugabe have persistently displayed independence of mind and spirit rather than fawning gratitude to Washington.
Zimbabwe has voted against the US in the United Nations, on the Soviet side in the debate over the downing of the ill-fated Korean airliner in 1982, and with most of the quasi-socialist states of the third world on a variety of international issues.
During the summer Zimbabwe's foreign minister permitted a junior Cabinet official to read a bitterly critical speech at a July 4th celebration sponsored by the US Embassy in Harare, Zimbabwe's capital. Former President Jimmy Carter was there and walked out in protest. Mr. Mugabe has consistently refused to apologize for the diplomatic affront and the gaucherie of it all.
Last week the State Department spoke harshly against Zimbabwe's ``incivility.'' Promptly, the remaining $13 million of an outstanding current $30 million grant to that country was frozen. Presumably the Reagan administration was intent on sending a strong signal to Zimbabwe on the eve of its becoming the flagship state of the nonaligned movement. Instead, our government's jab at Mugabe, leader of the nonaligned nations for a year, simply boosted his defiance of big-power bullying.
Stimulated more by a surprise flying visit of Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi than by the finger wagging of President Reagan, the meeting of nonaligned nations in Harare condemned the US air attack on Libya and, as Zimbabwe would anyway have wanted, the continued friendship of the US with and refusal to administer punitive sanctions to apartheid South Africa. Only President Samuel Doe of Liberia, dependent as he is on American economic help, defended the US publicly.
Although Zimbabwe will suffer from the loss of US aid, its own pride and its standing within the third world mean more to the leadership of Zimbabwe than largess from the West. Anyway, Zimbabwe hopes that the East bloc or Scandinavia will help make up the loss of American assistance.
If so, American reflex action may have driven a critical multiracial nation following a sensible capitalistic path into the warm embrace of the East. Although Mugabe has espoused a Marxist line for about four years and seeks one-party rule in his country, Zimbabwe is black Africa's prime economic success story. It has demonstrated the importance of maintaining realistic cash incentives for agricultural producers (both black and white), rather than subsidizing voters and urban consumers (the folly of the 1970s in Africa). It has remained overwhelmingly orthodox in its internal fiscal arrangements. About 5,000 white farmers, slightly more than in 1980, happily produce and profit under Mugabe's regime. The private industrial and service sectors of the economy, not all of which are still in white hands, also hold their own. Indeed, as evidence of Zimbabwe's intrinsic balance as well as a reaction to troubles in South Africa, hundreds of white Zimbabweans who fled a few years ago are now recrossing the Limpopo River and coming home.
To jab at Zimbabwe makes particularly poor foreign policy now, when Mr. Mugabe and his government need to be encouraged to hew to their successful capitalistic track, to continue nourishing their economy, and to remain as politically democratic as possible. Furthermore, in the battle to help South Africa save itself from internal destruction, Zimbabwe is a critical ally as well as a crucial example. It will be easier to persuade white South Africans to share power if Zimbabwe remains tolerantly multiracial and strong. Weakening Zimbabwe through US pique and punishment thus flies in the face of American self-interest as well as common sense.
Zimbabwe has indeed been uncivil. Its prime minister has been cheeky. Bold responses by world powers are often hortatory and helpful. But when so much loss of face is involved on both sides and the stakes are Africa-wide, being intemperate carries far greater costs than the possible benefits. Only President Reagan is gentle and vague enough to find a way to restore harmonious relations with black southern Africa's key state.
Robert I. Rotberg is professor of political science and history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.