Of Foreign Affairs, Politics, and Transitions

TWELVE years ago, I had a ring-side seat at the change in foreign-policy teams between the Carter and Reagan administrations. I was the secretary of state ad interim for five days between the departure of Secretary of State Edmund Muskie and the swearing-in of Secretary of State Alexander Haig. On the basis of that experience and monitoring the news of the current preparations, I predict the two transitions will be significantly different.

The assumption of power by the Reagan team in 1981 was profoundly ideological. Foreign policy had played a major role in the campaign with charges that President Jimmy Carter had been weak in opposing the Soviet Union and in preparing the nation's defense. So total was the rejection of the previous administration's policies that, until the final pre-inauguration days, the new team did not want to be briefed on key developments such as the negotiations on the release of the hostages in Iran.

Free-wheeling members of the Reagan transition team traveled abroad to inform other countries of potential changes in policy - not always in ways ultimately adopted. The global threat of the Soviet Union overshadowed all else. The Reagan foreign-policy group was especially concerned with the reports of a Cuban presence in Grenada, the Sandinista victory in Nicaragua, and terrorist activities of Libya.

In the 1992 campaign, foreign policy was not a central issue. Dramatic changes in the world eliminated many earlier concerns. The differences that marked and complicated the transition in 1981 do not appear to exist in 1993. The transition teams and incumbents appear to be working together in a professional atmosphere. Although the new team will review past policies and, in many cases, adopt new approaches, premises and actions of the past have not been automatically rejected.

Unlike the Reagan group, Bill Clinton's key foreign-policy appointees, Secretary of State-designate Warren Christopher and National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, have worked closely together before - in the Carter administration and in the campaign. Little possibility exists for the kind of jockeying for position that marked the early relationship between Secretary of State Haig and National Security Advisor Richard Allen.

Because of the deep ideological mistrust of all those who served with President Carter, the Reagan transition team ordered all presidential appointees, including career people, out of their offices by Jan. 21, 1981. Not only was important expertise lost, but dedicated professionals who had in the past served both Democratic and Republican administrations were penalized for their faithful service to a president. The Reagan team was, of course, not unique in its initial suspicion of State Department profes sionals. "Who are all those people? They were not with us on the campaign." Secretary-designate Christopher and others in the foreign-policy group have worked with career professionals and respect them. Although major changes will take place in the bureaucracy, no indication exists that the 1981 approach is likely to be repeated.

The five days in which I served as interim secretary of state resulted from delays in the confirmation process of Secretary Haig and other appointees. Those were awkward days, with the designated appointees at their desks, but without authority. Working now with a Democratic Congress, the Clinton appointees have been able to schedule pre-inauguration hearings that will permit prompt confirmation on Inauguration Day.

Transitions in the United States government will always present problems. No system of "shadow cabinets," exists similar to that in parliamentary democracies. A prolonged period of putting together a coalition of appointees to meet the various constituency needs of the president is thus essential. During that period, the maintenance of a consistent foreign policy is complicated by a loss of momentum in key negotiations, uncertainties regarding priorities, responses of the new administration to existing c rises, and the orientation of the new officials.

During this period, not only is the domestic audience watching, but so is the rest of the world. A nation with the responsibilities of the US can ill afford presenting an image of uncertainty and abrupt change during transitions. At such a time, the nation and its external relations benefit from a constructive transition in which the inevitable differences and ideologies of politics are minimized. Given the approaches being taken by both Bush and Clinton, that appears to be happening in 1993.

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