If you are interested in the probable direction of American foreign policy over the next four years, start your thinking with two facts. First, the American voters sent Republican George Bush to the White House, but gave the opposition Democrats control of both houses of the Congress, by increased majorities.
Second, the most influential person in the Bush political circle is James Baker III, who was secretary of the treasury, mastermind of the Bush political campaign, and will be manager of foreign policy as secretary of state.
Put these two facts together and you come up with a coalition-type government in which the White House's point of view will be molded and managed by a man already well-known for a willingness to compromise with the Congress and his considerable skill in doing so.
This will mean minimum friction between White House and Congress over foreign policy, and no radical changes in direction from those now in motion.
But there will be differences in emphasis which can now be estimated in the important areas of foreign policy.
On dealing with the Soviets, Mr. Bush has sounded during the campaign as though he would want to be more skeptical and hesitant than President Reagan has been of late. However, he and Mr. Baker are believed to be pragmatic rather than ideological about the Strategic Defense Initiative, or ``star wars,'' which has been holding up the proposed new START treaty on limiting strategic weapons.
It seems probable that a Bush-Baker foreign policy team would be willing to agree to limits on testing and deploying components of SDI in return for suitable balancing concessions. This means that START, which has been marking time for about a year, would be pushed forward in the next round of talks with the Soviets, which should come early in the new administration.
On dealing with friends and allies in trade matters, which will be increasingly important as Western Europe moves toward its 1992 goal of becoming a free trade area, the Bush-Baker team will be inclined to avoid ``trade wars.'' They may be forced into some trade protectionism, but the record shows both men inclined against it. Most of the big American labor unions which currently seek more trade protectionism backed Mr. Bush's Democratic rival for the presidency. The incoming Bush administration owes nothing to them. The unions may develop a push for protectionism in Congress, but the White House can be expected to resist as much as possible.
The most important change from Reagan policy could come over the Middle East. The Reagan administration has been instantly responsive to Israel's wishes. While it ``deplored'' the methods used by Israel in trying to suppress the Arab uprising in the occupied territories, this was a painless pat on the wrist. Since Mr. Reagan came to office, Israel has been treated almost as the 51st state in the American union.
Mr. Bush comes from Texas where oil interests are on the side of good relations with the Arab countries. Nothing on the public record proves that Mr. Bush would be less responsive to Israel's wishes, but friends of his think he might try to be more evenhanded.
A test may come in the near future. The Israeli election results point toward a probable coalition of Likud, the parties further to the right, and ultra-Orthodox religious parties. Such a government is likely to want to launch a new program of planting Jewish settlers in the occupied territories. That, in turn, would rouse another wave of Arab resistance.
There has been a hiatus in the planting of such settlements almost since the Likud-Labor unity government took office in 1984. A resumption would rule out early and serious negotiations pointing toward peace. Mr. Bush is said to be intending to make peace in the Middle East one of his major early priorities. If he does make an early move in that direction, he will not want it blocked by a revival of the settlements policy by Israel.
In military policy, the Bush administration is expected to be more selective. It will not push for all the new weapons now on the Reagan agenda.
Central America is likely to see less emphasis by Washington on help for the Nicaraguan contras. Mr. Bush will probably propose another year of aid to the contras, but will not make a public issue over it with Congress. More likely would be Mr. Baker quietly negotiating behind the scenes with the leaders in Congress for money to keep the contras in existence for bargaining leverage with the Nicaraguan government.
A lot of news has been made over the last four years out of disagreements between the White House and Congress. Mr. Reagan could afford to do that because he was elected in 1984 by a true landslide in the popular vote, and because of remarkably high public popularity.
Mr. Bush, however, enjoys neither asset. His majority was narrow, he could not carry his party to victory with him, and his popularity rating is far below Mr. Reagan's.
George Bush will be forced to deal gently with Congress.