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The Reagan Administration is repeating the first beat of a familiar rhythm of America's international and political life. Each newly elected Administration of the alternative political party launches its foreign relations with themes that were developed during the national campaign in opposition to the policies of its predecessor. But then comes the down beat: unexpected domestic and international conditions contradict (or appear to contradict) the underlying premises of the "new" foreign policy. Then either the Administration abandons or modifies its themes (in substance, if not in rhetoric) or it takes uncontested credit for the transformation. This phenomenon began with the Eisenhower Administration. It has deep roots in the American political system and the American approach to the outside world.
Three signal events marked the year 1981 (at least, from the point of view of a Frenchman): the arrival of Ronald Reagan at the White House in January; the election of François Mitterrand to the presidency of the French Republic followed by the election of an absolute majority of the Socialists to the National Assembly in the spring; and, of course, the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in October. At the same time, no crises were settled during the past year (not even the Polish one), no wars begun, and none ended. The official calendar did not coincide with a historic period in any part of the world.
American presidents have usually inherited poor relations with the Soviet Union. President Eisenhower, of course, was confronted by the tensions of Korea and President Kennedy by the Berlin crisis. Lyndon Johnson was a temporary exception, but Richard Nixon inherited Vietnam and the Czech crisis. Gerald Ford had to deal with a faltering détente, and Jimmy Carter was embroiled in early disputes. In January 1981, Ronald Reagan found himself in much the same position as his predecessors, except that relations were worse than usual. Indeed, relations were frozen. Even the outgoing Administration was pessimistic. The departing American Ambassador to the U.S.S.R., Thomas J. Watson, Jr., summed up the prevailing gloom: "I don't think the West has any conception of how dismal the future looks for East-West relations."
European leaders were pleased to start 1981 with a new American President and looked forward to steadier Atlantic relations rather than to a bumpy, unpredictable course with Jimmy Carter. Not that they agreed more with Ronald Reagan; they knew very little about him. But they had come to dislike and disdain Mr. Carter so much that it was assumed a change must be for the better, and Mr. Reagan's general projection of a newly vigorous, confident, purposeful America, after a disheartening decade, was most welcome.
Although the weight of the United States in the world economy is less overwhelming than in earlier years, economic events, economic policies, and economic ideology in this country continue to have a substantial impact on the rest of the world, as was demonstrated again in the year just ended.
If either Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan needed any special persuasion to become convinced of the centrality of the Middle East in the total picture of American foreign policy, harsh experience provided it. The former had some notable diplomatic successes in the region, the Camp David accords and the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, but he struggled through the final year of his presidency under the impact of two shattering events--the seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. However history may judge his efforts to cope with them, there was no avoiding the impression of a humiliated and frustrated America which must have contributed to his electoral defeat in November 1980. President Reagan came into office determined to restore American strength and prestige, but one year later his Administration, shocked by the assassination of President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt, at odds with Israel after a series of disputes culminating in the barbed exchange following Israel's de facto annexation of the Golan Heights, and unable either to put aside the Palestine problem or make any progress toward settling it, was still groping for a political structure on which to build the position of strength deemed necessary to hold off the Russians and protect vital oil supplies.
The election of Ronald Reagan in November 1980 may not have actually led to victory parties in the capitals of the more conservative military regimes of Latin America, but it seemed clearly to indicate that there would be a significant change in U.S. policy toward that area. While Jimmy Carter's Latin American policy was not a central issue in the 1980 campaign, it appeared from statements by Reagan's advisers and from the conservative "think tanks" that prepared policy papers during the transition period, that there was likely to be a shift in Latin American policy as dramatic as the one that marked the early days of the Carter Administration--in an exactly opposite direction. While the furtherance of human rights would not be completely abandoned as an objective of U.S. policy (Roger Fontaine, one of Reagan's Latin American advisers, had told a Chilean audience in September that "a concern for human rights did not begin with the Carter administration nor will it end with it"), it was to receive a much lower priority; and with friendly governments it was to be promoted through "quiet diplomacy" behind the scenes rather than through public denunciations and aid cutoffs.
One should approach the subject of Africa with caution. Like a horse, it is dangerous at both ends and uncomfortable in the middle. 1981 has been dominated by continuing conflicts in southern Africa and in the Western Sahara, Chad and Eritrea. In northeastern Africa, past and present conflict has swollen the flood of African refugees to almost half the total number of refugees in the world, at a time when a gravely worsening economic crisis, exacerbated by unusual climatic conditions stretching over a period of years, has brought to millions in sub-Saharan Africa the prospect of death by starvation. The assassination of President Anwar el-Sadat in October was a dramatic reminder that Africa's troubles cannot be insulated from the rest of the world, that external dependence which ignores internal political and economic realities is dangerous--that there are limits to America's ability to control events in Africa.
For more than three decades East Asia has had its share of buffeting by the rivalry of the great powers. The region has been the site of America's two most recent wars--in Korea and Vietnam--which reflected the interplay between local conflicts and efforts of the Soviet Union, China, and the United States to safeguard vulnerable frontiers, establish alliances with which to countervail the expansion of rivals' influence, and secure the interests of allied states.