The election campaign failed to shed much light on the probable course of American foreign policy over the next four years. Domestic issues and personalities dominated the presidential contest; there was no urgent issue comparable to Korea in 1952, the Berlin and Cuban confrontations of the 1960s, Vietnam in the 1970s or even the Iran hostage crisis of 1980. President George Bush will probably not be confronted with a burning foreign policy problem in his first hundred days.
To be sure, there were real national security issues in the campaign, and some important differences between the candidates, more over defense issues than foreign policy. The defense debate concentrated on narrow questions, e.g., the MX missile, rather than questions of general strategy or what kind of defense might be affordable. Governor Michael Dukakis opposed the MX and Midgetman missiles, and the candidates also divided over the future of President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. But they both supported a strong alliance with Western Europe and agreed on the need to strengthen conventional defenses. Both supported the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and claimed they would complete the negotiations for a strategic arms reduction treaty.
Governor Dukakis seemed to be more protectionist in his campaign statements on trade, while Vice President Bush carried the banner of free trade. They differed sharply over Nicaragua and the contras. And they seemed to differ on South African sanctions, though the issue was not thoroughly aired.
Both candidates struck an optimistic note in their visions of America’s place in the world, as is customary in election campaigns. The president-elect emphasized a platform of peace, prosperity and continuity in foreign policy. His most prominent theme was "peace through strength." Thus, his election can be interpreted as a mandate to continue this policy.
During Mr. Reagan’s tenure this slogan referred mainly to relations with the Soviet Union. Mr. Bush now must translate an appealing but abstract formula into a set of new or revised operational policies to cope with the difficult longer-term issues, changing world conditions and the limits on American resources. The new president will have to try to define the role of the United States in a world significantly different from that which Ronald Reagan inherited from Jimmy Carter eight years ago, and radically different from the world of the late 1940s, when America finally broke with its isolationist past.
While it is unlikely that the 1990s will be an era of such historic dimensions, this may nevertheless be an important turning point for the country. George Bush could be the last president who fought in World War II. During the campaign he proclaimed that the postwar era was over and a new "revolutionary" era had begun. But the shape and texture of that new era is far from clear. As Walter Wriston writes in this issue of Foreign Affairs: "When major tides of change wash over the world, power structures almost inevitably reject the notion that the world really is changing, and they cling to their old beliefs."
The most important and intriguing changes by far are occurring inside the communist world. Robert Kaiser, assistant managing editor of The Washington Post and a seasoned observer of the Soviet Union, writes: "The news from the Soviet Union is enthralling—nothing so interesting or exciting as Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms has happened in Russia in modern times."
Not only in Moscow but in Beijing as well, ideas and policies are being conceived, proposed, debated and even implemented that would have been radically heretical only a decade ago. Their essence is simple: both countries are trying to dismantle a highly centralized economic system that has been a foundation of communism under both Stalin and Mao. Both countries are compelled to do so because the old system has failed, utterly and catastrophically.
At the same time, in both capitals there is a realization that replacing the economic structure imperils the political foundation of the one-party Leninist system. And that realization is at the heart of the crisis of communism. Can the party leaders and bureaucracy give up the power, authority and legitimacy that the system confers on them?
The Chinese reforms are more advanced, and the growing economic and political problems in China may be an ominous portent for the fate of Gorbachev’s plans. Some observers compare conditions in China to the last years of the Kuomintang in the late 1940s. A Chinese economist is quoted as saying: "The problem is not ideology—we are all flexible and pragmatic about ideology now. The challenge is whether the party is capable of leading the country. There is already doubt among the people, and it is rising. The real issue is the legitimacy of party rule."
The internal crises have affected the countries’ foreign policies, more so in the Soviet Union than China, which made its major break under Mao. Now Gorbachev has begun to outline a policy that seems far more conciliatory, more accommodating toward the Soviet Union’s adversaries. It is possible that Gorbachev will make his own journey to Canossa, when he meets Deng Xiaoping next year in Beijing. It would be a dramatic event. Few expect a resurrection of the old Sino-Soviet alliance, but international politics will be altered significantly nonetheless. It was almost thirty years ago, in the fall of 1959, that Nikita Khrushchev inaugurated the "spirit of Camp David" with President Eisenhower, and on his return to Moscow stopped in Beijing to warn Mao against testing the capitalist system by force.
Gorbachev and Deng need no such lectures. They are both accommodating to the existence of a capitalist world, and even seeking to emulate it. Gorbachev for his part seems tempted to go beyond coexistence; he has said things about the nature of international affairs that are remarkable, and his subordinates have gone much further, even questioning the very foundation of a Leninist foreign policy—the international class struggle.
The crisis of communism is a striking vindication of its antithesis—democracy and freedom. Yet the crisis raises some perplexing questions for the industrial democracies.
Should we help Gorbachev? A positive answer seems to be the consensus in Western Europe where our allies are lavishing economic credits on the U.S.S.R. ($8 billion this year). Should we "take him at his word," as the West German foreign minister argued? Should we pose a series of tests, as Governor Dukakis urged, or should we preserve a "prudent skepticism," as the president-elect advocated?
Many will remember that the purpose of the policy of containment was to induce a mellowing of communism. Thus some observers of American policy insist that a significant strategic opportunity is at hand, but may be slipping from our grasp. Others argue that the Soviet Union, under any leader, would have to pursue roughly the same foreign policy as Gorbachev’s, given the U.S.S.R.’s parlous situation. Thus, they argue that we should welcome perestroika, but not finance it.
Perhaps the best advice comes from inside the Soviet Union, from Andrei Sakharov, who said recently: "Perestroika deserves very important support from the West, but this support must be rendered with circumspection."
President-elect Bush announced late in the campaign, and confirmed after the election, that he will arrange to meet with Gorbachev early in his term, after his designated secretary of state, James A. Baker III, consults with NATO and meets with his Soviet counterpart. The purpose of the Bush-Gorbachev meetings, according to Mr. Bush, would be "not to achieve any grand breakthroughs but to engage in a serious and direct examination of where we are and how we can best go forward toward further arms reductions, a decrease in regional tensions, and further adherence to human rights and thus toward a surer peace."
Some years ago a campaign promise of an early East-West summit would have been a debatable strategy for a Republican candidate. President Reagan, however, has taken most of the curse off summitry. A preliminary "meeting" (not a summit) with both President Reagan and George Bush may take place in December, if Gorbachev attends the U.N. session. Nonetheless, the Bush Administration should review its strategy for dealing with Moscow at a time when the U.S.S.R. is in deep turmoil but may be more open to external influence than at any time since Stalin’s death in 1953.
At long last, what we really want from the Soviet Union becomes a relevant question. One area where this question is critical is in Eastern Europe. The Soviet empire could become the "sick man of Europe," and its disintegration could provoke some severe and dangerous crises. It would be rash to assume that Gorbachev will preside over the dissolution of the Russian empire without a violent struggle. It would be imprudent if the new administration adopted the view, expressed by one American official, that it would be completely "out of character for [Gorbachev] to send in troops to restrain" the East Europeans. Thus the administration in Washington must prepare for both the best and the worst cases.
The changes in the world economy are not as revolutionary as the changes in Russia and China, but they will demand the new president’s urgent attention.
The United States enters the 1990s in a strange position compared to the 1980s: the national debt is almost $3 trillion; we are beset by large budget deficits ($155 billion) and huge trade imbalances (about $130 billion), and threatened by a seemingly intractable Third World debt totaling over $1.2 trillion. The combination is a volatile one. During the election campaign it was not treated with the special urgency it seems to deserve, and the campaign offered few clues to a Bush Administration’s solutions.
The Bush team argued that the deficit will be contained by a "flexible freeze" and reduced by continued growth of the U.S. economy, but on the issue of trade imbalances and Third World debt the new administration’s policies are more uncertain: Can the dollar be stabilized? Is the Baker plan to stimulate bank loans, encourage investment in the Third World and revive its exports still valid? What of the new proposals that call for some "forgiveness" of these debts, an idea that the vice president-elect, Senator Quayle, strongly denounced?
There is no escaping the necessity for choice. As Michael Aho and Marc Levinson write in this issue of Foreign Affairs:
Making the hard economic choices required to keep the United States growing and to permit all groups within the population to share in that prosperity is the fundamental challenge of the post-Reagan era. . . . Due largely to U.S. domestic economic policies, the world economy remains seriously out of balance. Restoring that balance will be the most crucial task of the next presidential administration.
Some of the consequences for foreign policy are already evident. The defense budget is not likely to grow for some years. Such experts as Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) estimate that the probable reductions from the original projection of Defense Department spending could amount to over $300 billion, a cut of roughly 25 percent, over the next five years. If so, this would not only mean cuts in programs, but would also require difficult decisions about alternate weapons systems, force levels and deployments. Such a process amounts to a revision of national strategy. The principles to guide such a revision (e.g., the balance between offense and defense, between conventional and nuclear) will have to be developed and enunciated early in the administration’s term. Otherwise there is the risk of makeshift decisions stimulated by White House and congressional infighting.
Perhaps the principal problem will be the sour political climate. With large budget deficits, there is likely to be no receptivity to forgiving foreign debts. Indeed, the U.S. deficits create an atmosphere that makes foreign assistance seem extravagant, increases pressures for greater defense burden-sharing with our allies and may well increase our reluctance to undertake new geopolitical commitments. We have already witnessed these trends in events of the past several years. Foreign aid has failed to increase since 1981; the Philippine base agreement was renegotiated for only two years because Philippine demands were seen as excessive. The one significant new commitment, to protect shipping in the Persian Gulf, was highly contentious.
These tensions will be further aggravated by the contradictory reactions provoked by the trade deficit: the determination to open foreign markets to American goods, and the pressures to close our own markets to foreign competition. The vice president campaigned against protectionism, but some trends suggest an increasingly chauvinistic resentment over foreign intrusion into the American economy, especially the buying of real estate. Direct foreign investment in the United States grew from $17.9 billion in 1971 to $262 billion at the end of 1987.
All of this adds up to a mood of economic nationalism in this country, which is matched by the growth of the same destructive sentiments abroad.
The economic disputes are becoming a significant element in our relations with Europe and Japan. The threat from the Soviet Union that has held the U.S. alliance system together appears to be weakening while the frictions between America and its allies are growing stronger.
The validity of NATO’s defense strategy of "flexible response" was not challenged in the election campaign, but questions have arisen about its credibility in the post-INF era, when American nuclear weapons are being withdrawn. Can the alliance compensate by increasing its conventional defenses? Can Europe shoulder more of the defense burden, as many Americans wish? If Europe can organize itself to protect its economic interests, why can it not do the same for its own defense? Does arms control offer a way out?
These are among the questions that are bound to be on the new president’s agenda in a period of important change in Europe, both West and East. For decades we have encouraged the European dream of unity, but now the reality may become more of a nightmare for us. By the time of the next U.S. presidential inauguration (January 20, 1993), Europe plans to be a common market without borders, an economic giant of 350 million people with a GNP larger than that of the United States. "Fortress Europe" has become a description in the United States of the new European market; a phrase resurrected from World War II, it has extremely negative connotations. What will be the relationship of this giant with the United States and Japan? Both Washington and Tokyo fear European protectionism. Ironically, one reaction has been to propose a U.S.-Japanese free trade agreement as counterweight.
Is the dream of trilateralism fading? One observer, writing in the Far Eastern Economic Review, concluded:
When Ronald Reagan hands over the presidency on 20 January 1989 . . . it will mark the end of an era in US politics and of unchallenged American supremacy in Asia. With its national debt reaching a dizzying US $2.8 trillion and large budget and trade deficits straining its resources, the post-Reagan US will have to make painful adjustments that will affect Asian economies, security and the US role in the region.
Such commentaries suggest the need for a new design of trilateral relations as one of the basic tasks for the new administration; an outline should be ready when President Bush goes to Paris for the next economic summit on July 14, 1989, the 200th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille.
Finally there are two issues that will concern the president immediately: how to deal with the conflict between Israel and the Arabs, and the conflicts in Central America.
The new president will find a bipartisan consensus among the experts that the Arab-Israeli conflict has become more complex, more difficult and more dangerous—hence more urgent. He will probably find himself under some pressure to produce a new "peace plan," if only a refurbished version of the stillborn Reagan plan of September 1982. But others may argue that speed is not of the essence despite potential dangers. What is required is a careful survey, together with Israel, of what could constitute an acceptable peace. In this light the appointment of a special emissary seems wise. The issue, however, is not procedure but the substance of a settlement.
It has been more than a decade since the Camp David agreements. Unfortunately, it is not possible to say that the area has moved closer to peace since then. Moreover, conditions in the area have changed. The PLO has proclaimed a Palestinian state, and implied its "recognition" of Israel. The Iran-Iraq War has ended, but chemical weapons were used by Iraq and missiles have proliferated in the region. Most important is the question of U.S.-Israeli relations after the turn to the right in Israel’s November elections, especially if the intifadeh continues, as it seems likely to do.
One American commentator, Charles Krauthammer, anticipating a more challenging Palestinian "peace option," warned that Israel should "tread carefully": "The Reagan honeymoon is over. Israel will not see the likes of Reagan and Shultz again. Under a Bush Administration and under the cloud of a continuing intifadeh, there will be from the beginning American pressure on the new Israeli government."
The fighting continues in El Salvador, and the situation in Nicaragua is neither peace nor war. President Bush will inherit a situation better in El Salvador but far worse in Nicaragua than Mr. Reagan’s inheritance in 1981. Eight years ago the United States still had a number of options, including the one chosen, of mounting a guerrilla war against Nicaragua. Now, American options have been reduced to unpalatable alternatives. If military intervention in Nicaragua is ruled out, there may be no choice but to negotiate the limitations on Nicaragua’s behavior outside its borders, i.e., a policy of containment. The middle ground, more aid for the contras and a waiting game, may be the new president’s preferred course, but the odds are against his gaining the necessary political support in the new Democratic Congress.
The situation in El Salvador has improved compared to 1981, but the outlook is still gloomy: "El Salvador represents a far greater challenge to the next administration," James Chace writes in this issue. "Here there is no stable government, a Marxist-led insurgency is alive and well, the prospects for political change are unpromising, and the United States has committed itself to military victory."
In 1980 Mr. Reagan could claim he had a mandate to change course. He did so over these last eight years. On the central issue of foreign policy, however, he ends his tenure close to the mainstream, at least on the major security issues of dealing with the Kremlin. No president has inherited better relations with Moscow than George Bush, and many would argue that the new president will inherit a stronger global position than most of his postwar predecessors.