FROM the mountains of Wyoming to the United Nations General Assembly the Bush administration has been on the march in recent days, attempting to disprove criticism that the White House has been timid on foreign policy. Bursts of progress have indeed been made on key issues from nuclear arms control to chemical weapons. But much of the action on global issues in the United States this week was a matter of Soviet moves and fortunate timing, as well as administration effort.
President Bush still has not laid out a vision of where the US is headed in its crucial relations with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in a time of great change, claims one administration critic. ``We need a concept,'' says Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
The administration's foreign policy offensive was launched last Friday in spectacular Grand Teton National Park. Backdrops of craggy peaks, shaggy moose, and fall foliage so bright it seemed lit from within were irresistible to TV producers, perhaps gaining the meetings between Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and Secretary of State James Baker III more coverage than the typical superpower ministerial.
Initiatives proposed by the administration resulted in a number of signed-and-sealed agreements at the talks, ranging from a pact to exchange chemical weapon data to an accord facilitating travel of Eskimos across the Bering Strait. Mr. Baker and Mr. Shevardnadze signed these agreements at a carefully situated outdoor ceremony, with Jackson Lake and Mt. Moran in the background. Asked why the ceremony was outdoors instead of in an inside setting less appealing to cameras, Shevardnadze shrugged broadly with a ``beats me'' look, drawing chuckles from the press and surrounding delegations.
But the most important thing that occurred at the Wyoming minisummit, said Baker at his final press conference, was the Soviets dropping their insistence that a strategic arms pact be overtly linked with ``star wars'' limits. Second most important, in Baker's rankings, was the Soviet promise to dismantle their Krasnoyarsk radar. The US has long charged that this radar, because of its location deep inside the country, violates the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty.
The USSR decided to take these and other moves to try to draw the Bush administration into a more serious dialogue on reducing long-range strategic nuclear arms with a START treaty, says one Washington analyst. ``The Soviets are trying to energize the administration,'' says Jack Mendelsohn, deputy director of the Arms Control Association.
The opening of the UN General Assembly only one day after Baker and Shevardnadze went trout fishing together gave the Bush administration an opportunity to continue its foreign policy push. In his first speech to the UN as president, George Bush had two missions: make a new chemical weapons reduction offer to the Soviet Union, and lay out his vision of a global issues agenda for the 1990s and beyond.
In offering to deeply slash the US chemical weapons arsenal if the Soviet Union would do the same, Bush was trying to get a concession from the Soviets for something the US was largely going to do anyway. Congress has voted that the Army must destroy up to 90 percent of its stock of old chemical weapons, as a precondition for production of new ``binary'' chemical artillery shells, bombs, and warheads.
The proposal worked. In agreeing to match US chemical reduction in his own UN speech, Shevardnadze gave Bush one of his biggest, and certainly his fastest, foreign policy successes as president. But Shevardnadze went farther, saying the two superpowers should prohibit all production of the new generation ``binary'' chemical weapons.
Shevardnadze also reiterated a standing Soviet offer to halt all nuclear testing ``any day and hour, if the United States reciprocates.'' The US has long rejected Soviet overtures for a testing ban, and is not likely to change its position soon.
Overshadowed by the superpower chemical reductions agreement was President Bush's UN emphasis on broadening the foreign policy agenda. Much of his speech was devoted, not to superpower relations, but to what he called ``the global challenges of the 21st century'': world economic health, the environment, third-world debt, regional wars and terrorism, and illegal drugs. All these issues cut across national boundaries and must be dealt with by many nations, Bush said.
The UN, with representatives of hundreds of nations present, was a natural place to call for a global policy emphasis. But Bush officials in recent months have talked much about the continuing move from a bipolar to a more multipolar world.
Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, in a controversial Georgetown University address, spoke of the ``frankly diminished'' capacity of the United States to influence global events.
A broader foreign policy agenda was evident even in the US-Soviet Wyoming meetings. Never before had a meeting between superpowers so prominently featured environmental issues, such as a US proposal for a long-term joint effort to gather basic pollution data.
During the Reagan years the US-Soviet relationship was almost exclusively about arms control and security affairs. Those are still the central issues of discussions between superpowers, but economics, trade, and other questions are growing quickly in importance. On their flight to Wyoming, the superpower foreign ministers spent hours talking about how to stabilize, not nuclear deterrence, but the ruble.
The new character of US-Soviet relations is illustrated by the fact that the latest high US official to be invited to the USSR is Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan. Mr. Greenspan will travel to Moscow in October for three or four days of talks that could focus on the Soviet pricing and monetary system.