Courtesy Reuters

The Conduct of American Foreign Policy: The Perils of Incoherence

The year 1978 was one of solid accomplishments, multiple frustrations and varied crises for American diplomacy. It saw neither great debacles nor spectacular "breakthroughs." The only event that came close to deserving this qualification - the Chinese-American announcement of the normalization of diplomatic relations - was the logical consequence of the rapprochement begun by President Nixon and Henry Kissinger. The other major event, Camp David, was the necessary - though far from inevitable - product of President Sadat's 1977 visit to Israel.

To an American observer trying to evaluate American foreign policy with some detachment, the single most striking feature of America's conduct in the world in 1978 was fragmentation. Washington's diplomacy went off in a bewildering variety of directions, and policymaking was marked by a number of conflicting actors and centrifugal forces. It is true that policymakers have always been impatient with demands for coherence or absolute consistency - for the world, at any moment, is riddled with contradictions, ambiguous trends, divergent currents and actions. But there is an attainable degree of coherence which requires, not the elimination of contradictions, but at least their management, indeed their good use. In the absence of a strategy which tries to channel conflicting forces and to prevent the contradictions between policies that aim at equally valid goals from breeding chaos, the conduct of foreign policy risks becoming a succession of ad hoc moves, with frequent changes of course or warring implications.

If these comments seem particularly true of 1978, the roots of American diplomatic inconsistency and contradiction go deeper than the peculiar flaws or troubles of the Carter Administration. Some may be traced to constraints and concerns that have always characterized American foreign policy; others are the result of changes in the constellation of world power that America could only marginally have influenced. Last, there are the special traits of the current policymaking group and state of mind of the American public. Continuities, world realities, American realities - these are the areas we will explore.

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