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The conventional wisdom has it that Ronald Reagan was elected to his first term in 1980 largely on the strength of economic considerations. Yet there can be no doubt that a good many voters supported him because they had been growing increasingly worried about the decline of American power and resolve in the face of the growing power and aggressiveness of the Soviet Union. Nor is there any doubt that these voters included a significant number of life-long Democrats (I myself among them), who saw in the Carter Administration and especially in Mr. Carter's announcement shortly after taking office that it was becoming less and less necessary to contain Soviet expansionism_evidence that the Democratic Party was still in the grip of the neoisolationist forces that had captured it in 1972 behind the candidacy of George McGovern.
Nineteen hundred and eighty-five begins as a year of promise in world affairs. The Soviet Union has returned to the bargaining table with the United States after a year's hiatus. The Middle East is relatively quiet despite the violence in Lebanon. The situation in Central America is unhappy but seemingly stalemated. Nowhere are American forces engaged in combat. No catastrophes hover over President Reagan as he begins his second term.
Analysts of President Reagan's reelection landslide have made much of the point that it was not necessarily a mandate for tougher policies: the voters' endorsement should be seen as primarily an enthusiastic expression of hope for continuance of the state of economic well-being and patriotic euphoria in which Americans, by and large, found themselves in late 1984. Be that as it may, it does seem quite clear by contrast that four years earlier Jimmy Carter lost votes on foreign policy issues. If Washington's relations with the outside world are going well, they may not be a decisive vote-getter, but the sense that they have gone badly can be a decisive vote-loser. Nothing fails like failure.
On November 23, 1983, the Soviet Union walked out of the intermediate-range nuclear force negotiations in Geneva and shortly thereafter suspended the strategic arms talks, thus closing down all U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms control negotiations.
Over the last four years America's foreign economic policy jumped its traditional track. The first few postwar administrations practiced a single-handed kind of world leadership, because there was no one else to help. As Europe and Japan gained more economic strength, recent presidents focused on ways to share the management of the world economy. But President Reagan and his team seemed far less interested in international economic policy. Above all, they were preoccupied with events at home.
As he reflected on the ironies of his first term, Ronald Reagan must have found it remarkable that so many difficulties had arisen in what he thought of as America's front yard. In comparison, the 1970s must have come to seem almost idyllic, at least on the surface; Mexico, Brazil and Venezuela had grown and prospered, the Panama Canal issue had been resolved. But then a double crisis--conflict in Central America and near bankruptcy almost everywhere--exploded just as Reagan's watch began.
Nineteen eighty-four was a year of realignment throughout the Middle East, a year not of the soldier, but of the diplomat and the politician. The war in Lebanon abated; the war in the Persian Gulf sputtered along without clear outcome or design. Syrian's renewed ascendancy in Lebanon and the continuing threat to the whole region from Iran's militancy contributed to an intense round of diplomatic maneuver among moderate Arab countries, notably Egypt and Jordan. The United States, extricated from its Lebanese misadventure, helped to limit the Gulf war and provided military support to friendly countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The Soviet Union, taking stock of a series of substantial setbacks in the region since 1979, and finding Syria and Libya to be less than reliable partners, was striving to extend its diplomatic influence among those same Arab moderates, either directly or through its only faithful protégé, South Yemen.
There is always something new out of Africa," said the ancient Greeks, as recorded by Pliny the Elder. The contemporary Africa-watcher, however, might be forgiven for wondering whether it is not all more of the same. In 1984, as in 1983, events in southern Africa and the devastating drought and famine which cost the lives of countless tens of thousands again dominated the year. For Nigerians, the new year began with yet another military government, which had ousted the elected civilian administration on the last day of 1983. In Chad, civil war ground on with no solution in sight. Libya's unpredictable leader, Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi, continued to make headlines with stories ranging from the killing of a British policewoman in London to his dabbling in the affairs of Chad and other countries. At the United Nations, the controversy over Namibia continued to set records as the longest running debate in that organization's history. And U.S. suggestions that its policy of "constructive engagement" with South Africa was succeeding continued to be greeted with skepticism in many quarters.
Nineteen eighty-four has been a quiet year in U.S.-West European relations--a year during which these Western countries had the luxury of organizing a large number of conferences for intellectuals and public figures to ask themselves whether George Orwell's bleak warnings had actually been prophetic (if they had been, these colloquia could not have been held) and whether Soviet reality resembled Orwell's vision of totalitarianism. What actually happened in the relations among these nations was less interesting than what did not happen.
East Asia was a stable region in 1984, marked by general progress toward the goals laid down by the various national leaderships. In Japan, Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone's election to a second two-year term signified continuity in foreign policy and particularly in the partnership between Washington and Tokyo. Not only is the close security relationship with the United States being maintained; Japan also began significant movement toward a modest but increasing political role in global affairs.