AN American lecturing at universities today in the United Kingdom is likely to face a broad range of questions denoting bewilderment and apprehension over the way the United States makes foreign policy. In a week I will complete a stay in Great Britain that has taken me to 16 campuses in every region of the country.
Although one finds the posters and student activities that reflect interest in such continuing issues as nuclear disarmament and South Africa, the general focus is far less political than I had expected. Students, like their counterparts in the United States, are concerned with their careers and their future. Administrators and teachers in the British Isles today are preoccupied with severe budget cutbacks that, on some campuses, will mean sharp curtailments in staff and activities.
At such universities, there were few provocative questions on such themes as the United States in Central America, the US policy toward South Africa, or the raid on Libya. When there were such questions, they were likely to come from non-British students.
Queries that dealt with the nature of the US government and the political phenomenon of Ronald Reagen were more common. They reflected the concerns apparent outside the universities, springing from the feeling that Britain is heavily dependent on the United States for its defense. The men and women in the United Kingdom, whether in universities or outside, who are primarily concerned about the dangers of nuclear war have not forgotten early statements by President Reagan and members of his administration that suggested nuclear war was a possibility. Such people represent an audible minority here that believes the US poses a greater threat to the peace than does the Soviet Union.
Others, who share the American preoccupation with Soviet capabilities and intentions, fear that the Reagan administration, while it has emphasized and demonstrated strength, is not giving necessary recognition to European perspectives.
Reykjavik heightened the apprehension that the President did not fully understand the issues, issues vital to European security. Now the disarray in Washington over arms to Iran and the contras throws into question the competence of executive leaders' decisionmaking process to deal with any serious foreign policy issue.
Those British questions have at least four roots. Students and professors alike have a tendency to see Ronald Reagan merely as a former film actor and ``political cowboy.'' They do not recognize that the President's intuitive response to the concerns of US citizens has made him personally popular.
For those in Britain conditioned by a democratic system that is more disciplined and centralized than that in the US, the anti-authoritarian system in Washington seems totally chaotic. One question, for example, was whether a country with so confusing and inconsistent a policy structure is really fit to lead the Western alliance. The constitutional division between the legislature and the executive, the traditional roles of the White House staff and State Department, and the basic middle-of-the-road attitudes of the US voter need to be explained.
Beyond questions on the system, there are concerns over the direction of the US. Evidences of unilateral tendencies in American thinking prompt worries that the US will withdraw from Europe. Ironically, these worries are expressed even by some who criticize the US presence. Reports of the growing trade relationships between the US and East Asia generate queries about whether the US will shift its strategic as well as its economic priorities to the Pacific.
Granting that recent events in Washington have caused anxieties, even among Americans, a visitor in Britain is still surprised at the depth of concern over the competence of US leadership. Surprising and gratifying at the same time is the accompanying impression that, for most people in the United Kingdom, the relationship with the US is still of great importance.
An editorial in the London Sunday Times Nov. 30, entitled ``Danger times for the West,'' put it thus: ``Those on this side of the Atlantic prepared to gloat at his [Reagan's] discomfort, however, better think twice, for it is not the United States which will suffer most from a diminished Mr. Reagan, but the Western alliance as a whole.''
David D. Newsom is spending a sabbatical leave from Georgetown University at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.