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In the memory of the American public, three events, or sets of events, stood out in 1983. The first was the September 1 shooting down, by a Soviet fighter, of a Korean Air Lines flight that had strayed into Soviet air space and was carrying 269 civilian passengers, including 61 Americans; in the aftermath, favorable American opinion toward the Soviet Union dropped to a 27-year low, and the incident aborted what had been brief hopes for better communication between Washington and Moscow and some progress at least on minor issues.
Let us put our cards on the table. There are two basic views about President Ronald Reagan's foreign policy. One, the Administration's, appears to be accepted (if the opinion polls are to be believed) by the majority of Americans. It is that the United States, after years of weakness and humiliation, has once again faced the challenge of an aggressive, expansionist Soviet Union, revived the global economy, rescued the Western Alliance and generally reasserted true American leadership in the world. The other view is shared to a greater or lesser extent by much of the rest of mankind, with the possible exceptions of the Israelis, the South Africans, President Marcos of the Philippines and a few right-wing governments in Central and South America. It is that the Reagan Administration has vastly overreacted to the Soviet threat, thereby distorting the American (and hence the world) economy, quickening the arms race, warping its own judgment about events in the Third World, and further debasing the language of international intercourse with feverish rhetoric. A subsidiary charge, laid principally by the Europeans, Canadians and many Latin Americans, but frequently endorsed in the Arab world and the Far East, is that in a desperate desire to rediscover "leadership," the United States under Reagan has reverted to its worst unilateral habits, resenting and ignoring, when it deigns to notice, the independent views and interests of its friends and allies.
The performance of the world economy in 1983 is difficult to characterize. For the industrialized market economies--members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development--it was the year of the long-awaited recovery after the second oil shock of 1979-80. World trade began to revive after two years of stagnation and decline. There was continuing good news about inflation in the OECD area. Business and especially consumer confidence improved. A major rupture in the world financial system was averted through effective, concerted crisis management led by the International Monetary Fund, whose role was further enhanced by an infusion of new resources. The heavily-indebted developing countries demonstrated considerable progress in external adjustment: indeed the largest Latin American debtors accomplished an amazing turnaround in trade performance.
What is bewildering is the conviction--and it is becoming more and more general--that in all the perils that confront us, the direction of affairs is given over to a way of thinking that has no longer any understanding of itself. It is like being in a carriage, descending an increasingly precipitous slope, and suddenly realizing that there is no coachman on the box." The lines were written in 1854 by Fyodor Tiutchev, poet and diplomat, in a letter to his wife. The image is frightening and many seem to have experienced similar fears as the year 1983 drew to a close.
For the Reagan Administration, 1983 was to be "the year of the missile." It was to be the moment of truth in the American effort to introduce new intermediate-range weapons into Western Europe and to "modernize" the U.S. strategic arsenal, primarily with the development of the MX intercontinental missile. Until this buildup in defenses was well under way, nuclear arms control would be a matter of keeping up appearances, of limiting damage, of buying time, and of laying the ground for possible agreement later.
The surface was all smiles and harmony. After years of transatlantic distress, the major nations of the democratic West assembled in May in the splendor of Colonial Williamsburg to manifest their unity and their confidence. There were two new faces among the seven heads of state and government, both symbols of a significant political change in their respective countries: West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who had replaced Helmut Schmidt in October 1982 and whose party, the Christian Democrats, had just been confirmed by a massive popular vote on March 6, and Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, the leader of Japan's Liberal Democratic Party and government who, in striking contrast to his predecessors, articulated a newly confident, internationally minded Japan.
American peacekeeping turned into American bloodletting in 1983. More than any event since the war and oil embargo almost exactly ten years earlier, the October 23 suicide bombing of Marine headquarters in Beirut brought the Middle East conflict home directly to vast numbers of Americans stunned by the carnage that eventually claimed 241 lives--more casualties than in any other single incident since the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam.
A few days after Ronald Reagan was elected President in 1980, U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua Lawrence Pezzullo gave a long interview in his Managua office. "It's going to be our ideological blinders that may cause us to make mistakes," Pezzullo said, as he considered Central America policy under the new President. "This is a new Administration, there are going to be tradeoffs, and you've got to feed your right-wing somewhere. Maybe you'll just let them eat up Latin America. It's cheaper than some other places like the Middle East, the Soviet Union or China, where no president is going to have much room for radical policy changes." He paused and reflected for a moment. "That's the way I tend to think things will go," he said, "just feed it to the lions."
Democracy and debt were a macabre pas de deux in South America during 1983. As military regimes withdrew in disgrace (Argentina), further liberalized (Brazil), or tried to cope with vigorous popular pressures to restore democracy (Uruguay and Chile), that welcome news was haunted by the growing social and political implications of the continent's economic difficulties. The growing foreign debt burden has become the most visible manifestation of the current economic crisis, the worst in more than 50 years.
The major events of 1983 in East Asian politics and economics can be looked at from three broad vantage points or planes of abstraction. At the most general level one sees, rather like the movements of tectonic plates on the earth's surface, a slight shift in the center of gravity of U.S. foreign policy from Europe toward Asia. In large part this shift is prompted by a growing realization among the leaders of the United States and Japan that their nations will, for the indefinite future, be paramount in the fundamental sciences and their practical offshoots in microelectronics, biotechnology, fine ceramics, and other new areas of technical development, and that Western Europe will trail in most of these fields and the Soviet Union simply be left behind. The fact that the American President met with the prime minister of Japan three times during 1983 underscores this trend, as did the President's statement in Tokyo in November that "No relationship between any two countries is more important to world peace and prosperity than the relationship between the United States and Japan."
For much of Africa this year, immediate threats to survival dominated national agendas. In the extreme north and south, Libya and South Africa attacked the territory of weaker neighbors. Less noticed but far more widely devastating, a harsh drought destroyed crops across the continent, confronting more than 20 million people with the prospect of starvation. Declining rates of per capita food production over the last decade, coupled with escalating debt and falling returns on exports, left many African states at the margins of existence--at least according to Western calculations. And at year's end, a military coup abruptly ended four years of American-style democratic government in Africa's largest nation, Nigeria, renewing fears about political upheaval throughout the continent.