FROM THE ANTHOLOGY: Essays for the Presidency

The First Term: From Carter to Reagan

Jimmy Carter with Ronald Reagan. AP

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.

In my view, however, the two successive foreign policies have differed more in the images they have created at home and abroad than in their substance. Furthermore, in Mr. Reagan’s case, ironically and surprisingly, words have proved an effective substitute for deeds in much of international politics, and maybe even of defense policy.

There is, of course, a difference between "operational" and "declaratory" policies and the signals both send to the outside world. The distinction was well traced in the pages of Foreign Affairs by Ambassador Paul Nitze in January 1956. Between what a government actually does and what it says or implies are its objectives and intentions lies some degree of divergence, sometimes a small gap, sometimes more of a chasm. These divergences do not mean that declaratory policy can be simply dismissed as bluff or hypocrisy. Nor are such differences always to be deplored, since they make possible a degree of flexibility. The French have a saying, "The soup is never eaten as hot as it is cooked." We might say that the hot soup of declaratory policy, as it emerges from the kitchen of the ideological cooks who prepare it, is always cooled a little by pragmatism before it is served up in the real world, which seldom matches the world of

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