FROM THE ANTHOLOGY: Essays for the Presidency

After the Election: Foreign Policy Under Reagan II

Reagan and Mondale debate.

The second Reagan Administration has a rare opportunity to reshape American foreign policy. The opportunity obviously springs from President Reagan's overwhelming election victory, which, if he remains in office for four more years, will make him the first full two-term president since Eisenhower. This victory has further strengthened his already impressive capacity for political leadership, reinforcing his authority to deal with the factions of his own party, with the feuding wings of the bureaucracy, and with foreign countries. The question is whether he will seize that authority and will know how to use it. Which Reagan, and which group of Reagan advisers, will dominate the second term? Will it be the stubbornly hard-line or the flexible President, the "ideologues" or the "pragmatists" among his counselors?

That distinction is, of course, somewhat oversimplified; the divisions within, and around, the President are not quite so clear-cut. There are apocalyptic and rational ideologues; there are very tough and semi-tough pragmatists. Still, the familiar labels do describe a genuine conflict, and in the first term, the evolution of that conflict was quite evident: from ideology to pragmatism.

The Administration started out by confronting the world with a hard-line, aggressive and Manichean set of policies, or pronouncements, that in nearly every instance gave way to compromise and at least outward accommodation. This was true of attitudes toward the Soviet Union, arms control, Central America, the European allies, and support of the International Monetary Fund, among others. The retreat and reversal on the Soviet-European gas pipeline issue was typical of this trend. These accommodations happened only after bitter bureaucratic infighting, and in response to various outside pressures: public opinion, politics, allied complaints, the risk of diplomatic debacles.

The need to compromise was symbolized by the resort to more or less bipartisan commissions: the Scowcroft panel on the MX missile, the Kissinger group on Central America. These commissions did extremely useful work and produced sound, generally centrist recommendations, which by no reasonable standard could be described as weak.

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