The Endangered Asian Century
America, China, and the Perils of Confrontation
Between Jimmy Carter's election in 1976 and Ronald Reagan's victory in 1980, the outlook of the American people underwent one of those decisive shifts that historians generally label as watershed events. In 1976 the nation was still in the aftershock of Watergate and Vietnam-unsure of its limits as a superpower, agonizing over the moral rightness of the Vietnam War, dreading involvement in foreign commitments that in any way resembled Vietnam, preoccupied with domestic economic problems, intent on restoring the presidency to pre-Watergate levels of integrity, and dependent on détente with the Soviet Union to lighten both the defense budget and the tensions of international relations.
By the end of 1980, a series of events had shaken us out of our soul-searching and into a new, outward-looking state of mind. The public had grown skeptical of détente and distressed by American impotence in countering the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It felt bullied by OPEC, humiliated by the Ayatollah Khomeini, tricked by Castro, out-traded by Japan and out-gunned by the Russians. By the time of the 1980 presidential election, fearing that America was losing control over its foreign affairs, voters were more than ready to exorcise the ghost of Vietnam and replace it with a new posture of American assertiveness.
Americans have become surprisingly explicit about how the United States should seek to regain control of its destiny, and in the context of the disquieting realities of the 1980s, these ideas create a new, different and complex foreign policy mandate for the Reagan presidency. The national pride has been deeply wounded; Americans are fiercely determined to restore our honor and respect abroad. This outlook makes it easy for the Reagan Administration to win support for bold, assertive initiatives, but much more difficult to shape a consensus behind policies that involve compromise, subtlety, patience, restrained gestures, prior consultation with allies, and the deft geopolitical maneuvering that is required when one is no longer the world's preeminent locus of military and economic power.
In looking at the implications of the new public outlook for foreign policy, we shall first examine how the events of 1980 transformed the public psychology. We shall then turn to an analysis of the public mandate given to President Reagan, noting its contrasts with the Carter mandate, and indicating where the current mandate encourages new foreign policy initiatives and where it hinders actions the Administration might wish to take.
Some elements of the change in American attitudes toward foreign affairs have been brewing for several years, but 1980 brought many reinforcing developments, all of which delivered related messages about American strength and weakness, honor, eminence and standing among nations. Some of these struck the American public with astonishing force.
Although hostages were seized in Tehran in late 1979, a 1980 overview of public reaction to American foreign affairs can be said to begin with Iran and the 52 American officials held there throughout the year. This sustained episode of national anguish, humiliation and outrage focused public attention simultaneously on the complexities of Middle Eastern politics, the ease with which Iranian militants could seize the American Embassy and its occupants, and the inability of the American government to take effective measures to secure their release. While public opinion polls taken at various times after the Embassy seizure showed no lasting consensus in support of any particular military, diplomatic or other measures, a decisive 65 percent of the public agreed that the taking of American hostages and the U.S. government's handling of the situation had "decreased U.S. prestige abroad."1 And, an even larger 80 percent majority agreed that the Iranian situation had brought the American people together and helped unify the nation.2
While events in Tehran were still being digested, Afghanistan provided a new focus for public attention. President Carter confessed astonishment at the boldness of Russian aggression, and the nation watched as Soviet tanks maneuvered in the streets of Kabul. Although the President was criticized for exaggeration in some quarters, his charge that the Soviet invasion constituted the "greatest single threat to world peace since World War II" struck a responsive chord with the American public. For the public, if not for diplomats, the invasion confirmed fears that had been growing for years, fears that the Soviets were taking ever more advantage of American weakness to strengthen their position in the Middle East. Surveys taken in the aftermath of the invasion showed 50 percent of the American people concluding that "the Russians feel they now have military superiority over the United States and can get away" with such a move. And a 78 percent majority maintained that, unthwarted by American strength, the Soviets were motivated by an opportunity to gain "more influence over the oil-producing countries of the Middle East."3
Afghanistan represents a special type of public reaction to a foreign event. Rather than just a sudden, quickly dissipated burst of outrage, public opinion following the invasion displayed a coalescence of anxieties about Soviet belligerence that had long been present, and crystallized into a suddenly "tougher" view of how to respond. The nation was ready, as it had not been for many years, to "pull together and do what must be done" to reassert American military and diplomatic credibility. The President's words were a rallying cry for this new resolve, but disappointment quickly followed. Military measures, either by the United States or its NATO allies, were ruled out, and most of the diplomatic and economic sanctions imposed on the Soviets seemed either mild or counterproductive. A boycott of the Moscow Summer Olympics and the explosion of pride at the victories of the U.S. hockey team in the February Winter Olympics at Lake Placid were an unsatisfying surrogate for an effective countermove to military aggression. The frustration was enormous, yet it neither exploded nor dissipated; many months later it found expression in the presidential campaign.
Other events erupted on a scale somewhat smaller than the gnawing hostage situation in Iran or the menace of an unchecked Soviet invasion, but sufficient to remind the public that a weak American foreign stance was humiliating, and perhaps dangerous.
Following close on the invasion of Afghanistan was what might have been a routine vote in the United Nations. When a resolution calling on Israel to dismantle its settlements in the West Bank came to the Security Council, in early March, the United States cast its vote in favor of the resolution. The uproar was immediate; in most previous votes of a similar nature, the United States had either supported the Israeli position or abstained from voting. And when President Garter repudiated the vote two days later, and he and Ambassador Donald McHenry offered the explanation of a mistake in communication, the barrage of criticism came not only from Israel and its American supporters, but from Egypt's President Anwar Sadat and much of the diplomatic community as well. Asked for their opinion on the episode, a 64 percent majority of the American public felt that the real "mistake" had been the President's management of the vote and its aftermath. Only by a narrow 42 to 38 percent margin did Americans feel that the President was telling the truth when he said he did not know that the United States would vote in support of the Arab bloc resolution.4
Fidel Castro's Cuba emerged at least twice during the year, each time to pose vexing questions about American resolve. For several months after intelligence revealed its presence in August 1979, a Soviet combat brigade in Cuba had been a non-issue that still would not go away; then, in May 1980, the arrival of thousands of Cuban refugees in a "freedom flotilla" became a burning issue. In the first instance the American public was led to wonder whether the nation still had the "clout" that had successfully removed the Soviet missiles from Cuba in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Intelligence photographs and official pronouncements about the limited significance of the force did little to allay public concern that the Soviets were having their way with little regard for any U.S. response.
Initially, the springtime arrival of nearly 100,000 Cuban refugees in a chaotic scramble of small boats evoked a sympathetic humanitarian response. But, on balance, the episode left a negative impression on the public. Juxtaposed as it was with growing American concern about domestic unemployment and rekindled suspicion of the Soviet Union, the immigration wave aroused what Louis Harris called "a pervading sense that the United States was tricked by the Castro regime." In an ABC/Harris poll, a 62 percent majority felt that "Castro made us look foolish" by forcing the United States to accept not only large numbers of refugees at an inopportune time, but large numbers of Cuban "undesirables" as well. An even larger 75 percent majority agreed that it was wrong to admit so many Cuban refugees "when we are having real economic troubles at home and unemployment is on the rise."5
More distressing than the knife-twisting which Castro has learned to administer so skillfully to the United States were the tragic, symbolic catastrophes that befell the American military, first in the aborted raid in April to rescue the hostages in Iran, and then in the disintegration of a nuclear-armed missile in its silo in September, the result of a fuel explosion. The first episode, bound up painfully with the anguish of the hostages themselves, reopened serious concern about the readiness of U.S. military forces and the effectiveness of our policy planning. Still shocked over the failure of the rescue mission, Americans were treated to the additional unnerving spectacle of a respected Secretary of State, Cyrus R. Vance, resigning in disagreement with the President. And, in the aftermath of the explosion at the missile site in rural Arkansas, controversy flared once again over the reliability and possible disrepair of America's strategic military establishment.
Over and above these military and diplomatic setbacks came an endless variety of economic bad news confirming changes for the worse in America's standing in world affairs. Serious trade imbalances, rising unemployment, inflation, recurrent slippage in the value of the dollar, and the eroded position of U.S. industries in the face of foreign competition sounded ominous notes all year. Increasingly, domestic economic problems were tied to international developments and, recognizing the difference between business cycles and systemic economic trouble, a 68 percent majority of the American people concluded that the U.S. economy was in "a real crisis," as opposed to the 32 percent who felt we were encountering only cyclical "minor problems."6
What, in the context of a presidential election year, did this stream of unsettling news mean to the American people? What were the cumulative effects of these and other events, and how did they reverberate through the body politic on election day?
In the public eye, American travails in the world arena are part of a pervasive concern about what might be labelled "loss of control." Anxiety over loss of control was an evident theme in a wide variety of issues in 1980, both domestic and international. With uncertainty and apprehension, Americans anxiously groped for a vehicle to regain control.
Of the many forms of loss of control, none has more serious foreign policy implications than the concern that the nation has grown "weaker." Although not confined to a military definition, the perception of a strategically weaker America has recently grown to majority proportions after a trend of rising concern for several years. In mid-1980, a 53 percent majority agreed that "we are behind the Soviet Union in terms of military strength." Only a year earlier, citizens seriously concerned about relative U.S. military weakness were in the minority (38 percent).7 Uncertainty about national security brought foreign affairs into new focus. As the year began, a 42 percent plurality of Americans named foreign policy as "the most important problem facing the country today"-ahead of the economy and substantially ahead of energy concerns. Not since 1972 had foreign affairs been so prominent; just seven months earlier in 1979, before the hostage seizure and the Soviet move into Afghanistan, foreign affairs had been named by only three percent as the nation's most important concern.8
A perceived inability to "control" our foreign policy posture, as evidenced in the hostage affair and the Afghanistan impasse, left the nation frustrated and angry. The perception that America's concern for human rights had permitted us to be tricked, "used" and inundated by Cuban refugees was particularly galling. Even American potency in the world marketplace was regarded with apprehension. As an example, the perception that Japan and other countries had set up trade barriers to the disadvantage of U.S. products was held by over a 60 percent majority of the public in 1980.9
Concerns over loss of control not only had their impact on matters of foreign policy, but were pervasive in the daily lives of Americans. Each year more Americans are growing worried about their inability to save for the future (57 percent in a recent study),10 and majorities are now expressing serious concern about paying the rent or upkeep on their homes. This sense of control slipping from the grasp of even the most responsible citizens is underscored by the fact that while 50 percent of American families could afford to buy a median-priced home in 1970, only 20 percent could do so in 1980.11
Beyond household economics, the growing impact of taxes, invasions of privacy, and changing social morality all raise images of things gone "out of control." The fusing of political conservatism with religious fundamentalism reflects a deep distress among Americans that the nation's family life, sexual morality, and social norms are as out of control as our foreign policy or our inflation-riddled economy. Sociologist Richard Sennett has described movements such as the Moral Majority as representing people who "feel dislocated in America now, who fear the society they were brought up to believe in is disappearing or has disappeared."12
Buffeted by concerns about personal and national economics and alarmed by international tensions, Americans who feel that the country is "in deep and serious trouble" reached an unprecedented 84 percent in 1980.13
At the end of 1980, the American public's outlook had crystallized into a form that was troubled, aggressive, tough and resentful. For good or bad, the Soviet Union could take much of the "credit" for the change. Soviet leaders planning for the move into Afghanistan-relying on the calculus of raw power-probably did not give much weight to the opinions of the American public. Their calculation was based at least partly on the judgment that, in relationship to the United States, they had little to lose. They feared no great punishment, since they knew that the United States was severely limited in the pressures it could mount against them; conversely, they saw little to gain from restraint since they had already been denied crucial trade preferences, large-scale American technological assistance, or the likelihood of the Senate ratifying the SALT II arms limitation agreement.
After the Soviet incursion it became U.S. policy to convince the Soviets that they would have to pay dearly for their aggressiveness, so dearly that the penalty would be greater than the reward. But to date, the Soviets have suffered only the most minor inconvenience. Western Europe's relationship of détente with the Soviets has, for example, hardly been ruffled. In fact, as our relatively small trade has declined, Western Europe's much larger dealings have increased. But from a longer term perspective, history may show that by arousing the enmity and resentment of the American people in a manner that will not soon subside, the Russians paid a steeper price than they may have realized.
The skeptic may ask, "So what? What difference does the mood of a volatile public make? The public does not make foreign policy. Anyway, its opinions are not really its own; they are manipulated by the press or influential elites." For several reasons, this viewpoint-the conventional wisdom in some U.S. foreign policy circles as well as abroad-is a profound misreading of American political realities. On matters of foreign policy the public outlook is not at all volatile. In the post-World War II period it has enjoyed an orderliness, an inner logic and a grounding in principle that has been, if anything, more stable and consistent than American policy itself.
It is true that the opinions of the public do not arise spontaneously. The press and national leadership exercise a great influence on the public, but their voices are diverse, and often the public's response to events is not the same as the leadership's. On Iran, for example, the public was far more aggressive and oriented toward risky action than most press or leadership commentators.
In the conduct of foreign policy a President draws upon several great forces: America's military strength, its economic vitality, its geopolitical resources, and its public mandate. All are important, but the public mandate-the most intangible factor-may also be the most potent, as our policymakers discovered during the Vietnam War. Public opinion largely shapes the context within which policymakers work. There is wide latitude for discretion in policymaking because in a representative democracy the public mostly judges by results rather than insisting on specific policies and actions. Given considerable room for maneuver, a determined President can always oppose the public mandate, or else proceed by secrecy, stealth and indirection-though the latter is more difficult now than in the past.
About any public mandate, it is useful to ask two questions: how restrictive is it, and what kinds of actions does it encourage or inhibit? In an earlier article in Foreign Affairs, we argued that in recent years public mandates for the presidential conduct of foreign policy have grown more restrictive. In the pre-Vietnam period, the public assumed that a President had access to information available to no one else, and thus the President "knew best."14 Since Vietnam, however, there has been a notable shrinkage in the automatic support a President receives in foreign affairs. The poor marks given President Carter's foreign policy make it unlikely that his Administration succeeded in restoring any of the former aura of prestige and blind trust for the presidential conduct of foreign affairs. The Reagan Administration will, therefore, have to learn to live with the new kind of post-Vietnam public mandate-skeptical, opinionated, critical, impatient, giving careful scrutiny to all initiatives, and quick to conclude that while the President may mean well he may not know what he is doing.
In this respect, the Reagan mandate is similar to that which brought Mr. Carter into office. But in all other respects the Reagan mandate-the pattern of actions encouraged or inhibited-is strikingly different from Mr. Carter's. Mr. Carter was elected in a spasm of post-Watergate, post-Vietnam anguish: it was an essential part of his job to restore to the presidency its ability to symbolize America's moral worth (as it had been Mr. Ford's before him). Carter's 1976 campaign promise to form a government "as good as the American people" held a profound appeal for the voters by reassuring them of their own high moral standards.
The Carter Administration, for all its other limitations, succeeded in completing the task the Ford Administration had begun: it fulfilled that part of its mandate which called for a restored sense of honesty and goodness of intent in the office of the presidency. Americans can tolerate a conception of themselves as good people who stumble on occasion; we cannot tolerate an image of ourselves as an immoral people motivated by bad faith.
Thanks to Presidents Ford and Carter, the task of restoring our image of ourselves as good and decent people had been accomplished before the 1980 campaign, and it therefore has little bearing on the Reagan mandate. The Reagan presidency is charged with a far different task-reasserting control over the disarray in our international relations and our economy.
Mr. Reagan started his presidency with a firm vote of citizen confidence that he would accomplish the first part of the task and make substantial gains toward the second. Post-election polls show that overwhelming majorities of the public believe the Reagan Administration will "increase respect for the United States abroad." On economic problems, the margins are narrower, but pluralities think that Mr. Reagan will reduce unemployment, lessen inflation, and reduce the size and cost of the federal government. The public's expectation that Mr. Reagan will be able to make substantial gains on the foreign policy front is much higher than its confidence in his ability to restore control over the economy. This high level of expectation gives the Reagan Administration considerable room to maneuver, but it also imposes a heavy burden.
On our analysis of survey data, the American public holds strong and clear ideas about how the nation can regain control over its foreign policy and vindicate the country's honor. The actions encouraged by the new public mood include: a tougher stance in dealing with the Soviet Union; adding muscle to our defense capabilities; showing a willingness to aid our allies, with military force if necessary, in the event of Soviet aggression; brushing aside the moral squeamishness that diminished the usefulness of the CIA; employing trade as a legitimate weapon in support of our national interests; and in general acting more forcefully against our enemies and on behalf of our friends.
It is worth emphasizing that while the public response to the events of 1980 offers the most dramatic evidence of a "toughened" stance, many public opinion trends supporting a more assertive foreign policy began taking shape in the mid-1970s. In 1976, William Watts and Lloyd Free showed that the nation had begun to express "a diminished sense of progress in our dealings with the Soviet Union; a substantial increase in concern over the threat of war . . . and a more pessimistic view about the prospects for future relations with the Soviet Union."15 Even before the seizure of American hostages in Iran or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the post-Vietnam ambivalence about American assertiveness had started to dissipate. In the spring of 1978, a 53 percent majority agreed that the United States should "get tougher" in its dealings with the Soviet Union.16 In the aftermath of the invasion of Afghanistan, an even larger 67 percent majority supported a tougher posture.
Given the growth over the past several years of "assertive" trends in public opinion, it would be imprudent to dismiss the public stance of 1980 as a temporary mood that will pass after a few months of less bellicose Soviet activity. Sensitive at having been "burned" in the détente relationship with the Soviet Union, Americans are likely to retain that sensitivity for some time to come. Although the public outlook is more cautious and selective than in the crusading period of the 1950s and early 1960s, and containment is no longer singled out as the preeminent foreign policy goal, a national resolve to get tough is likely to be an underlying theme in public attitudes toward U.S.-Soviet relations for some time to come.
One of the most visible vehicles for an enhanced posture of toughness is defense spending, and nowhere has the assertive trend in public attitudes been more conclusive or dramatic than in the growing support for increases in the U.S. military budget. In 1971, with the war in Vietnam still unresolved, only 11 percent of the public wanted to increase U.S. defense expenditures. As late as December 1978, majorities still opposed higher defense spending; but by the middle of 1979, months before the taking of American hostages in Iran, a 42 percent plurality thought defense spending should be increased. Since that time, growing majorities have endorsed higher defense spending, and the events in Afghanistan pushed support for an enlarged military budget up to 74 percent, the highest point since the early days of the Vietnam War.17 Thus, in the space of a single decade, support for increased military spending soared from one in nine to three out of four!
When Mr. Carter argued in January 1980 that reactivating the mechanism of draft registration was a way of showing U.S. resolve in the face of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a majority of the American people agreed with him. In this sensitive area, too, slowly growing sentiment over the past several years found in the events of 1980 a catalyst that brought forth a new willingness to demonstrate American strength. In early 1977, a 54 percent majority in a Gallup poll still opposed any return to conscription, with 36 percent supporting a revived draft. A year later, Gallup recorded a nearly even split on the subject, with 45 percent supporting a military draft and 46 percent opposing such a move. Afghanistan pushed public sentiment toward solidity, and since February 1980 support for a peacetime draft has received majority support.18 An August 1980 ABC/Harris poll found a 78 percent level of endorsement for President Carter's call for draft registration.
A related question is the willingness of Americans to use military force in a variety of international situations. After a post-Vietnam hesitancy to send U.S. troops into any situation that might embroil us in a wider conflict, Americans are now responding to a more threatening world with a cautious willingness to project armed force, especially in defense of our allies. Although events in Iran and Afghanistan fanned this new manifestation of assertiveness, trends supporting the use of U.S. military force had begun to develop before these events.
Looking at the key indicator of willingness to intervene in defense of Western Europe, in 1974 only a 39 percent minority of Americans supported direct military involvement in the event of a Soviet invasion. In 1978, the level of support for military involvement crossed into majority status, and after the invasion of Afghanistan crystallized public concern about Soviet aggression, a two-thirds majority (67 percent) favored the use of American forces to repel such an invasion.19 This renewed willingness to defend allies, however, should not be construed as an indiscriminate rush to armed confrontation. Even in the cases of Iran and Afghanistan, after an initial venting of national ire, majorities favored either "holding off for now" or preferred the use of diplomatic and economic pressures.20
The CIA, after several years in the unflattering limelight of congressional and public attention, suddenly emerged in a new light following the Embassy seizure in Tehran. Scourged by a 49 percent to 32 percent negative rating from the public in 1975 after revelations of unsavory domestic and international operations, the CIA gradually rebuilt its support to a 59 percent positive level in 1978 (to strengthen U.S. interests overseas and "weaken those forces that work against" us).21 A year later, as a result of events in Iran, the agency received a 79 percent endorsement for "overhauling and stepping up" its activities; in the flush of post-seizure anger, the CIA was the designated arm of the U.S. government that should work "to overthrow the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran."22
A new, more assertive public stance also prevails on the question of international trade. Even when reminded that cutoffs of trading relations with an offending country can have a negative impact on the U.S. balance-of-payments and employment prospects, a 56 percent majority of the public favors the use of trade as a diplomatic weapon. Although a clear consensus exists for restricting export of weapons and armaments, including nuclear technology, a 50-percent majority also endorses the idea that grain and food products be "among the first" products cut off from an offending country.23
Together, then, these trends supporting geopolitical toughness, increased military spending and preparedness, less moral squeamishness in the realm of worldwide intelligence operations, and a new willingness to use trade leverage as a weapon in the interests of the nation, amount to a call for a new U.S. assertiveness in world affairs. The message to the Reagan Administration is at least partly telegraphed by the 77-percent majority of registered voters in a post-election CBS/New York Times poll who expect President Reagan to "see to it that the U.S. is respected by other nations."24
There are three major ways in which the Reagan mandate differs from the Carter version. The first relates to the uses of military power. Americans have come a long way since 1976 in resolving their ambivalence about military power. Critics have often accused American intellectuals of believing that military power is inherently immoral, and therefore that increases in defense spending and weapons systems are automatically to be opposed. In a diluted form, echoes of this same outlook have also been detected among the general public. But as we have seen, moral reticence about the use of military power has now abated. Public hesitancy about military power was linked to its use in Vietnam: many Americans came to feel that the force we applied in Vietnam was inconsistent with our claim to be a good people. While this matter remains controversial, it has receded as an influence on the public mind, and, at least in moral terms, the vast majority of Americans now enthusiastically support stronger military power in the service of our national objectives.
At the beginning of the Carter presidency, there was a similar ambivalence about internationalism-the extent to which the United States should take strong initiatives abroad to bolster its role as a world leader. The public's ambivalence about U.S. internationalism had a different source than its troubled feelings about military power. Here the concern was practical. Vietnam was America's first brush with our limits as a world power, and it left the nation both bruised and deeply concerned that we not extend our commitments beyond our capabilities.
The postwar low point for internationalism came in 1974 in the aftermath of the Arab oil embargo and the recession that followed. At that time, the dominant outlook was that the United States should mind its own business, recognize its limitations, and concentrate on domestic problems. This outlook has been well documented in studies conducted by William Watts and Lloyd Free, using an "internationalism/isolationism index." According to this measure, in 1974 only a 41 percent minority of Americans held a firm internationalist outlook, feeling that we should take the concerns of other countries into account, actively support our allies, and come to the military aid of our West European and Japanese allies if they were attacked by the Soviet Union. Two years later, at the time of the Carter election, internationalism, as measured by the Watts-Free index, stood at virtually the same low level: 44 percent. Since the Carter election, however, American internationalist sentiments have been rising steadily, and internationalist attitudes are now held by a solid 61 percent majority. This is a large increase in a short period of time. Moreover, internationalism correlates with education and affluence, thereby characterizing the most aware and active American citizens.
The third difference between the Reagan and Carter mandates is the least tangible though perhaps the most important. In the Reagan mandate there is a strong element-almost totally absent from the Carter mandate-of desire to vindicate American honor. Clearly the introspective brooding of the Ford-Carter period on the agonized question, "Are we a good people?" can hardly contrast more sharply with today's impatient question, "Why are we letting ourselves be pushed around?" Psychologically speaking, the first question has to be resolved before the second can be raised. As long as people are not sure they are on the ethical side of an issue, they will not interpret other people's actions as efforts to push them around. Instead, they will say things like: "Maybe they are right and we are wrong." "Maybe we have injured the North Vietnamese; maybe in supporting the Shah we have done a grave injustice to the Iranian people; perhaps we have betrayed the Chilean people." These kinds of moral judgments are credible to Americans only in moments of national doubt about our goodness as a people. But it is probably impossible for any nation to sustain these kinds of doubts for long; they soon grow intolerable and are transformed into other sentiments. Individuals may mire themselves in guilt over long periods of years, but nations quickly shrug off such self-doubts.
The moral self-doubt that characterized the Ford-Carter period has now been replaced by a powerful assertion of national pride. The conviction that we have in the past few years permitted ourselves to be manipulated, bullied, humiliated, and otherwise abused, has given rise to a powerful urge to vindicate the national honor. This is a strong part of the Reagan mandate, and in some ways, as noted earlier, it frees the new Administration to take actions needed to reassert control over our foreign affairs. But in other ways the public's convictions about how to restore the national honor collide with the geopolitical realities of the 1980s.
It will take several years before we can fully measure the effects of tension between the Reagan mandate and the constraints of modern geopolitics. But it may not be premature at this stage to illustrate both the opportunities and the inhibitions the new public mandate implies for a Reagan foreign policy.
Within its frame, the Reagan Administration will be able to take initiatives denied to previous administrations. For example, many foreign policy thinkers agree with Henry Kissinger that our failure to counter the Soviet's use of proxy Cuban troops in Angola in 1975 led directly to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the present Soviet threat in the Persian Gulf. Strategists who hold this view see a direct link connecting Angola to Ethiopia to South Yemen to Afghanistan as part of a systematic Soviet pincer movement aimed at the oil resources of the Middle East, with one arm of the pincer through Africa and the other arm through Afghanistan.
In 1975 it was politically impossible to take a bold American initiative to counter Soviet influence in Angola. The situation there looked too much like Vietnam to gain support, either among the general public or in the Congress. Now, in light of the 1980 mandate, Mr. Reagan will meet little public opposition in seeking to counter future Angolas.
Consider, for example, the current situation in the Middle East. In his visit to India in December 1980, Leonid Brezhnev proposed a "nonaggression pact" in the Persian Gulf area, in part to forestall U.S. initiatives in establishing military bases in the region. Under the terms of the Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel, the Israelis are scheduled to withdraw from their bases in the Sinai Peninsula at Etzion and Eitam in 1981. From the U.S. point of view, these desolate and unpopulated spots are ideal for military bases, from which to defend U.S. interests in the Gulf more effectively than from more remote locations. The calculations that might lead the Reagan Administration to assay such a move will depend on many factors. But one overriding political fact that did not exist in the Ford-Carter years is the strong potential for public support of such a move, were it to be made.
Other possible initiatives come to mind, such as giving massive support to Pakistan; supporting an effort by President Sadat to subdue the troublesome Colonel Qaddafi in Libya; getting tough with Cuba on the subject of the Russian brigade there and the 40,000 Cuban troops in various locations in Africa; pressing much harder for greater European and Japanese contributions to mutual defense; cracking down on pro-Khomeini Iranian student groups in the United States, and so forth. We are not recommending or even suggesting that such actions make sense; we are merely pointing out that they are the kinds of initiatives that would receive strong public support under the new mandate.
Some political risk remains, of course. If, responding to the public's assertive state of mind, the new Administration takes actions that backfire or prove imprudent, it will have to accept the political consequences. But unlike the climate of opinion that prevailed in the past few administrations, there now exists wide-spread support for initiatives that were virtually unthinkable only a few years ago.
Ironically, the present public mood would have fitted better with our position in the world of the 1950s and 1960s than it does in today's circumstances. At that time, our economic and military dominance was unchallenged-we accounted for a staggering half of the world's total industrial production. Then we could afford to adopt a more casual attitude toward the subtleties of balance-of-power politics, the will of other nations, and the limits of the American economy. But in the world of the 1980s, it may prove extraordinarily difficult to execute bold, simple initiatives that vindicate American pride.
The world is now full of countries disinclined to blindly follow America's lead. Much of the disarray of the Carter years came from the perception in other countries that the United States had lost its ability to support its friends, thwart its enemies, and execute its role as a responsible world leader. In the aftermath of Afghanistan, the Pakistanis began to wonder whether in today's world it was even safe to have America as an ally. Throughout the Carter years the Japanese and Germans often questioned aloud whether the United States knew what it was doing, and came to feel it more prudent to plan independent courses of action. There were also times when the Saudi Arabians wondered aloud whether we knew how to protect our own interests, let alone theirs. Some of this questioning of American competence came in the aftermath of our failure to support those elements in Iran that would have permitted an orderly transition from the Shah's regime to a government less inimical to the West than the rule of the Ayatollah Khomeini and the mullahs.
In the next several years, the United States will be obliged to execute many delicate and skillful geopolitical maneuvers that in skeptical eyes might show signs of expediency. How, for example, will the press and the general public react if we suddenly are obliged to rebuild Iran? At present the Soviet Union is seeking, in its posture toward the Iraq-Iran war, to preserve its position in both countries without committing itself strongly to either. But as the war goes on, or if it should die down, the Soviet leaders might be tempted to take actions designed to gain major influence in Iran or even to win it for the Soviet camp. It is probably in America's vital interest to prevent this from happening, and the competition for influence might entail strong U.S. support for Iran even under its present regime or one similar to it. But such an about-face would cause some of Mr. Reagan's supporters great discomfort. At the very least, the appearance of double-talk about Iran could easily confuse the public, unless the Reagan Administration shows exquisite skill and subtlety in explaining its policies and actions.
On another front, some of our most cherished European allies see détente with the Soviet Union from a different perspective than our own. For the Europeans, détente is no mere bilateral relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union. Rather, it is a complex fabric of ties between Western and Eastern Europe, ties that permit Western Europe to achieve autonomy, prosperity and unity. Thus there is a difference of interest which is easy to exploit. Even apart from the troubled issue of Poland, the Reagan Administration will have to work hard at negotiating differences in perceptions of the détente relationship with our European allies to find a common basis for action. It will have to undertake such negotiations with partners who increasingly demand equality, have ideas of their own, differ among themselves, and, from a U.S. perspective, are often perverse in their outlook. The kind of patience, skill, endurance and spirit of give-and-take required for such negotiations lies at the opposite end of the pole of emotions from those that thirst for bold, simple actions in the name of national honor.
It is possible that the balance of opportunities and constraints may turn out to be highly productive. Much depends on the skill of the new Administration in diplomacy and in communicating with the American people. The Reagan Administration has a good chance to live up to the public's high expectations. The stakes could hardly be greater: the rewards for success would be impressive, but the price of failure could also be high.
If a new national program forged at the conservative end of the American political spectrum, and responsive to deep public yearnings for an "assertive America," has a substantial measure of success, conservatives will have won a great victory at a crucial time. We will then probably see a new conservative consensus flow into the policy vacuum left by the disarray of the liberal consensus that has dominated our public life for the past 50 years.
However, if the Reagan Administration fails in its efforts to regain control, it does not follow that the liberal position will necessarily be the beneficiary. If Mr. Reagan is proven not able to forge a program appropriate to the world of the 1980s, and a constructive opposition program has not materialized, the country is less likely to swing back to liberalism than to move further toward the right-toward the strongly ideological right, with its villains, scapegoats and calls for righteous authoritarianism.
A failure by the Reagan Administration on the economic front could destabilize American society for years to come; the corrosive effects of runaway inflation, added to the other strains of American life, could unleash social havoc. And a serious failure on the foreign policy front could leave the United States not only weakened economically but so vulnerable in its national security that it might even be panicked into some frightful military adventure leading to a nuclear confrontation.
In short, the stakes in the new Administration's efforts to bring our domestic and foreign affairs back under control are enormous. The national mood of 1980 does not yet reflect the kind of clear consensus that existed on both domestic and foreign policy from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s. But it is not alarmist to suggest that if such a consensus cannot now be recreated-or if major issues are addressed in an excessively partisan or belligerent spirit-the very future of partisan politics in this country may be in question.
1 Time/Yankelovich, Skelly and White, May 14, 1980.
2 Ibid., December 12, 1979.
3 ABC/Harris, January 22, 1980.
4 ABC/Harris, March 24, 1980.
5 ABC/Harris, May 24, 1980.
6 Penn and Schoen for the Garth Report to the New York Stock Exchange, quoted in Public Opinion, June 1980, p. 30.
7 YSW Survey, 1980.
8 CBS/New York Times, January 9, 1980.
9 YSW Survey, 1980.
10 Time/Yankelovich, Skelly and White, May 1980.
11 National Tax Shelter Digest, quoted in The New York Times, January 1, 1980.
12 "Power to the People," The New York Review of Books, September 25, 1980; for a fuller discussion of this theme, see Daniel Yankelovich, New Rules: Searching for Self-Fulfillment in a World Turned Upside Down, New York: Random House, forthcoming, Spring 1981.
13 Time/Yankelovich, Skelly and White, March 1980.
16 CBS/New York Times, June 1978.
17 NBC/Associated Press, January 1980.
18 Gallup Index No. 178, June 1980.
19 ABC/Harris, No. 25, February 26, 1980.
20 CBS/New York Times, January 1980.
21 Gallup for the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. See John E. Rielly, ed., American Public Opinion and U.S. Foreign Policy 1979, Chicago: The Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, p. 16.
22 ABC/Harris, December 3, 1979.
23 YSW Survey, 1980.
24 CBS/New York Times, November 16, 1980.