Foreign Policy and the Democratic Process: Is a Foreign Policy Consensus Possible?

Does the American government require a single over-arching concept in order to build domestic support for foreign policy objectives? At a time when foreign policy is clearly vulnerable to pressures from a variety of interest groups, is it even possible to erect a broad foreign policy consensus as was done in the cold war era?

The Carter Administration came into office by emphasizing the variety and complexity of foreign policy problems, with an evident desire to avoid linking a whole range of issues under one umbrella. In a disorderly world, Carter stressed a deep concern with human rights and at the same time emphasized traditional American pragmatism, a combination of the evangelist and the engineer. But of late it has seemed that the priorities of the Administration are unclear. In particular, the President seems to tack back and forth on Soviet policy. His speeches focusing on U.S.-Soviet relations have veered sharply from a combative to an accommodating approach. His deeds have shown the same tendency. On the one hand, there have been denunciations of Soviet meddling in Africa, retaliatory measures for Soviet abuses of human rights (culminating in the Shcharansky trial), and a commitment to developing the cruise missile; on the other, he brought the Soviet Union formally back into the Middle East negotiations last October, canceled the B-1 bomber and deferred a decision on whether to develop the so-called neutron bomb. Yet the result has not been to strike a balance. Carter's cautionary words last June at Annapolis, warning the American people against "excessive swings" in attitude toward the Russians "from an exaggerated sense of compatibility . . . to open expressions of hostility" could be read as self-criticism. An oscillation between two extremes rather than measure and balance has too often been the perception both at home and abroad.

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