Let us put our cards on the table. There are two basic views about President Ronald Reagan's foreign policy. One, the Administration's, appears to be accepted (if the opinion polls are to be believed) by the majority of Americans. It is that the United States, after years of weakness and humiliation, has once again faced the challenge of an aggressive, expansionist Soviet Union, revived the global economy, rescued the Western Alliance and generally reasserted true American leadership in the world. The other view is shared to a greater or lesser extent by much of the rest of mankind, with the possible exceptions of the Israelis, the South Africans, President Marcos of the Philippines and a few right-wing governments in Central and South America. It is that the Reagan Administration has vastly overreacted to the Soviet threat, thereby distorting the American (and hence the world) economy, quickening the arms race, warping its own judgment about events in the Third World, and further debasing the language of international intercourse with feverish rhetoric. A subsidiary charge, laid principally by the Europeans, Canadians and many Latin Americans, but frequently endorsed in the Arab world and the Far East, is that in a desperate desire to rediscover "leadership," the United States under Reagan has reverted to its worst unilateral habits, resenting and ignoring, when it deigns to notice, the independent views and interests of its friends and allies.

It is in my experience almost impossible to convey even to the most experienced Americans just how deeply rooted and widely spread the critical view has become. It is, however, worth recalling at the outset of a review of 1983 that a devastating but entirely reputable opinion poll taken in January of that year showed that no less than 70 percent of the British people lacked any confidence in the judgment of the American Administration.1 This did not mean that they were neutralist or soft on communism or anything of the kind; on the contrary, their answers to another question proved that they were overwhelmingly in favor of NATO. It simply showed that they did not trust President Reagan and gave him no credit for successful leadership. Similar polls have been taken in other European countries, but the appearance of these sentiments in Britain, the most solid and phlegmatic member of the Alliance, may legitimately be regarded as a measure of the chasm that lies between current American perceptions of the world and the world's perception of America.


Anxiously scanning the events of 1983 for some means of bridging this gap, one is mainly in search of facts that will either vindicate the Reagan view or will show how the Reagan view has been altered by experience in such a way that the critics are disarmed. It must be said at the outset, however, that one important, and often cited, piece of evidence falls into neither category and can largely be dismissed from the case, at any rate so far as 1983 is concerned. This is the question of the deployment of cruise and Pershing missiles in Europe, for which the United States was more criticized there than for any other single act of policy during the year.

Of course it is possible to argue that the whole idea of deployment was a strategic error from the outset; and even easier to point out, with hindsight, the folly of the famous "two-track" decision of 1979 which in effect gave the Russians a license to make the maximum trouble for the Western Alliance for four glorious years. But having made these initial errors (if errors they were) with the full acquiescence and indeed encouragement of the allies, it is hard to see how the American government could have acted, in substance, very differently from the way it did.

In 1983 this meant plodding on with the negotiations and refusing to be diverted, either by the clamor of the peace movements or by Soviet threats and last-minute proposals, from the agreed essentials: that U.S. missiles capable of reaching Soviet territory should be stationed on the continent of Europe unless the new Soviet missiles capable of being directed against Western Europe were eliminated. As Mr. Paul Nitze, the chief American negotiator, remarked after the final Soviet walk-out on November 23, it was this central requirement of the Western position that the Soviet Union was unwilling or unable to stomach, and none of the formal Soviet "concessions" and compromises ever really addressed it. The informal deal on which Nitze and his Soviet counterpart, Yuli Kvitsinsky, had apparently agreed in their "walk in the woods" in July 1982 (the news only leaked out in January 1983) was the sole exception, for it would indeed have sanctioned some American deployments, though not of Pershing missiles and at a reduced level. But the speed at which it was repudiated by the Soviet leadership and the fact that it was never repeated either formally or informally suggests that the faction within the Kremlin which had authorized it must have subsequently lost a decisive argument.

In these circumstances it is grossly unfair for European, and particularly German, commentators and politicians to blame the Administration equally with the Russians for the breakdown of the talks. It was the Europeans who demanded a response to the SS-20 missiles in the first place; it was NATO which insisted on the theater balance of forces; it was the French and British who insisted, and who have continued to insist throughout 1983, that their nuclear weapons are "strategic" and therefore inappropriate for inclusion in the intermediate-range nuclear forces package. Moreover, the Administration has behaved impeccably toward the allied governments during the negotiations, informing and consulting at all stages and making the maximum effort to adjust the process of deployment to the politics and sensibilities of the host countries.

Yet even here, where the Administration's record on substance can be most effectively defended, the prosecution's case is revived by questions of style and presentation, both of which seem to arise from the fundamental attitudes of the Reagan era. First, the 1980 election campaign prepared public opinion for the notion-unwelcome because it implied an endless arms race-that the United States was attempting to reestablish nuclear "superiority" over the Soviet Union or, to quote President Reagan's later formulation, "parity, with a margin to spare." Then there was the initial severity of the American negotiating stance. The "zero-option" proposal of late 1981 invited the Russians to swap their own weapons for purely notional Western ones and would have left the West a clear advantage in strike aircraft, together with the French and British missiles. And the "interim offer" of March 1983 was scarcely more inviting; Reagan's proposals at the United Nations on September 26 were the first to show any real appreciation of the opponent's political and military requirements. Meanwhile, the running argument about the American strategic armory and the accompanying alarmist obiter dicta of Defense Department officials trying to "sell" the MX missile to Congress resounded round the world throughout the spring and summer. Finally, the dismissal of Eugene Rostow-not exactly a noted "dove"-as Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in January 1983, and his replacement by Kenneth Adelman, completed a misleading but not implausible picture of an Administration which was not really interested in an arms control agreement with the Russians at all and was merely negotiating as a sop to the allies and to spin out time while rebuilding superiority.

Vice President George Bush's tour of European capitals in February was intended to dispel this impression but did little to stem the rising tide of the peace movement. When these waters did indeed begin to recede during the summer months-partly as realization of the obduracy and unreasonableness of the Soviet position sank in, partly in reaction to the softening of the American line, and partly in sheer boredom with the argument-much unnecessary harm had been done.

It can easily be argued, of course, that the arms control issue does not "count"-either for vice or for virtue. The defects of presentation can be brushed aside as a necessary concomitant of any negotiation with the Russians ("If you don't start tough, they won't take you seriously"); and, conversely, the American willingness to consult can be devalued by the observation that since deployment could not take place without the cooperation of the European governments, the United States had no choice but to respect the proprieties. Let us turn, therefore, to two critical issues of 1983-Central America and the Middle East-where no direct confrontation with the Soviet Union was involved and where the other actors had less power or fewer presumptive rights to be consulted.


Here we immediately encounter two major sources of puzzlement and confusion in 1983, one the abrupt reversions of American policy to an earlier line, the other the extraordinarily Janus-headed quality of the results. Both of these can be seen with great clarity in the case of Central America. The general impression is that Reagan came in with a blast of bellicosity toward the left in Central America (loudly enunciated by Secretary of State Alexander Haig), but had been converted by experience and public opinion to a more realistic position based on economic assistance (including the Caribbean Basin Initiative), support for the political center, and severely conditional military aid for El Salvador.

By the middle of 1983 all this had changed again. Mr. Thomas Enders was dismissed as Assistant Secretary of State, apparently on charges of excessive moderation; former Senator Richard Stone was put in over the head of the State Department as the President's special envoy; and a hawkish commission under former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was appointed to give a bipartisan blessing to the Administration's new policies. These consisted of an increase in U. S. military aid to and involvement with the Salvadoran army, more encouragement for the right in Honduras, increased assistance for the right-wing guerrillas, or "contras," in Nicaragua and a massive show of naval force off the Nicaraguan coasts.

It is interesting to note that while external criticism, particularly from America's neighbors in the Contadora group (Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and Panama), concentrated on the confusion and hamfistedness of her new "physical" approach and doubts about the seriousness of the alleged communist threat in the region, congressional reluctance (and, in the case of the contras, refusal for a time) to fund such military commitments was based principally, though not entirely, on fear of another Vietnam "entanglement." Much of American public opinion seemed only superficially concerned about the unsavory nature of the forces behind which the United States was now throwing its weight. Only a small liberal core appeared to have any serious doubts about the inherent right of the United States to maintain its paramountcy in the hemisphere if subversion and military force were necessary.

This last point was vividly illustrated by the affair of Grenada. President Reagan's motives for invading the island on October 25 were that a group of American medical students might be taken hostage and that the overthrow of Maurice Bishop, the eccentric left-wing prime minister-though initially deplored by Havana-might lead to a truly extremist communist regime that would quickly revive and tighten its links to Cuba. As it happened, neither of these motives was ever entirely vindicated in spite of much subsequent evidence-mongering, but even if we accept them as valid, the legal pretext for the invasion was transparently flimsy, if indeed it can be discovered at all. The treaty of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, on which the President originally claimed to rely, does not authorize intervention except in case of external attack, and in this case it is highly doubtful whether the other treaty members had any legitimate concern in the affair. The Governor General's alleged "call for help" was a pretty odd one if it was inaudible as such in London, and would have been of dubious constitutional validity in any event, since no Grenadan minister had authorized it.

These are lawyer's points, of course, and they are arguable, but they are worth mentioning because they caused so little heart-searching in the American media at the time. Domestic criticism of the President's action was focused mainly on the possibility that this was a dress rehearsal for the invasion of Nicaragua, for which the Vietnam analogy provided sufficient condemnation; the mere ethics of marching into another country to assert American interests caused very few sleepless nights, granted that Grenada is on the American doorstep and that the invasion was successful.

The net result of all this activity has been to demonstrate three things to the watching world. First, it has shown that this Administration still has an instinctive taste for displays of force when the going gets rough. Second, it is clear that it is not too squeamish either about strict legality or about the views of anyone else. But third, it has been shown that there are other factors, notably the unwillingness of Congress to spend American lives, which enter into the equation.

What nobody can tell for certain is whether the United States would have taken more risky or overtly violent action in the area if opposition on Capitol Hill had been weaker (though it is another interesting commentary on the image which the present Administration projects that it is almost universally believed outside America that it would). On the one hand, aggressive gestures, including backing for the contras, can be justified as a means of bringing the Sandinistas to the conference table for the negotiation, in good faith, of a political solution. On the other hand, since the President has incautiously remarked in an interview that he does not think peace will come to the area while the present Nicaraguan government is in power, it is equally possible that he intends to overthrow it if he ever gets a chance.


This rather strange story of inconsistency, assertiveness and inconclusive caution in America's backyard has been repeated in the Middle East. Once again, the world has seen some remarkable shifts in American policy in 1983. The Administration, having come into office with strong pro-Israeli views, moved in its first two years to a much more detached position exemplified by the Reagan Plan. The reasons for this change were partly the intransigence and extremism of the Begin government in Jerusalem, and partly the realization that stability in the Persian Gulf depended on good relations with the Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, and that this, in turn, entailed a plausibly impartial position on the Palestinian issue.

These constraints have persisted in 1983. Although the fall in the price of oil and the virtual collapse of OPEC have diminished the centrality of Saudi Arabia in American calculations, the fact that the Iran-Iraq war has dragged on and even increased in bitterness has revived fears that Iran might close the Strait of Hormuz and so, as it were, restored the importance of the area in another way. Other factors, however, have altered the picture. The Begin regime collapsed-basically because the invasion of Lebanon proved so unpopular. The Lebanese civil war deteriorated. Syria reemerged as an ambitious actor at the center of the Middle East stage. As a result of these changes, the United States became involved on the ground in Lebanon. And finally, we should not forget that we are rapidly approaching an American presidential election, when concern for the Jewish vote traditionally swings American policy back toward Israel.

In these circumstances, it was no great surprise to find the Administration looking around desperately for solutions. They dared not leave Lebanon's President Amin Gemayel entirely in the lurch for that, they feared, would give President Hafez al-Assad of Syria (and, it is assumed in Washington, his Soviet backers) a free hand. It followed that if the Marines were to be safely withdrawn before the American presidential election, instead of sitting in Beirut as invitations to military and political disaster, a Lebanese settlement must be achieved. It looked for a brief moment in the spring as if such a settlement was possible on the basis of a mutual withdrawal of the Israelis and Syrians. Unfortunately, everything that has happened since the May 17 Lebanese-Israeli withdrawal agreement was signed has proved that, even with the best will in the world (which is certainly not present in this case), the Byzantine complexity of the Lebanese internal situation would defy a solution in which Syria was not involved. This conclusion being unacceptable, it was tempting to try to bring indirect pressure on Assad by the only other lever to hand-that is, the threat of the Israeli army.

The strategic cooperation agreement between Washington and Jerusalem, announced in November, was in a sense the logical outcome of this dilemma, but it was nonetheless a political disaster. It has thrown the main pro-Western elements in the Arab world-the Saudis, King Hussein of Jordan, the Gulf sheikhs, and the Egyptians-into despair; it has given a useful tool to Soviet and radical Islamic propagandists; and because the Israeli "threat" is no longer entirely credible it is most unlikely to have the desired effect on the Syrians.

No better demonstration could possibly be devised of the maleficent irrelevance of American domestic politics and anti-communist ideology when imported into a difficult regional situation. And yet, as in the case of Central America, the saving clause can still precariously be written on the page. Perhaps these crass maneuvers are intended as the prelude to a political settlement to which President Assad will be a party, but on more reasonable terms; perhaps they are an attempt to achieve the impossible and exclude Syria from Lebanon forever.


These ambiguities are confusing enough, in all conscience, but they are, in the end, only aspects of the great central puzzle of the Reagan position-which remained as clouded in mystery at the end of 1983 as at the beginning. The question at issue, of course, is whether the present Administration really wishes to achieve a more equal balance with the Soviet Union-in other words, to stabilize the status quo-or whether it wants to aim for the ultimate destruction of the Soviet system. Sometimes, as in the President's famous "evil empire" address at Orlando, Florida, in March or Vice President Bush's speech in Vienna in September, it seems as if "roll-back" is the implacable long-term objective.

Nor is this simply a matter of rhetoric. The latent idea that the Soviet system is tottering to its doom as a result of internal contradictions and that well-directed economic warfare will push it over the brink continued to surface in all sorts of intra-Alliance arguments over East-West trade. At other times it seemed as if the President was not only willing to encourage normal business with the Devil, as when he authorized a huge five-year contract for Soviet wheat purchases in August, but was even ready, in a naïve flourish of misguided optimism, to envisage the appalling prospect of U.S. development of a sure-fire anti-ballistic missile system in space, as a route to defusing the strategic nuclear threat on both sides.

The question can be put more generally. Let us suppose that the President was right in his 1980 proposition that the Soviet Union had opened up a dangerous gap between its own military capability and that of the West (which many outside the United States doubted then and continue to doubt today). Let us further suppose (which is considerably easier) that the President may now justifiably claim that this gap is about to be, if it is not already, closed. What happens next? Are we supposed to look forward to a period of peace through strength, of watchful East-West relaxation à la Kissinger (the word détente is obviously anathema)? Or will a series of shoves at the periphery of Soviet influence-in Angola, in Cuba, in Vietnam and in Afghanistan, for instance-combined with a great big economic shove in the middle finally be expected to achieve the results that eluded former Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in the 1950s? Will Ronald Reagan be the popular peace candidate of 1984 or the Hammer of the Ungodly again?

At the end of 1983 the world was still guessing and perhaps Ronald Reagan himself did not know the answer. It was the possibility that he might choose the second course that constituted the only conceivable plank across the gap between the two interpretations of Reagan's policy with which this article began. Because the final verdict on his Administration's foreign record is in that sense still not in, those, like this writer, who regard a less confrontational approach as not only necessary but possible will be wise to suspend judgment for one more year, lest they are taken by surprise.

Meanwhile, however, the world is entitled to complain that whatever the ultimate aim may turn out to have been, the style and methods employed in 1983, to put it as tactfully as possible, left something to be desired.

First, unilateralism. This can take many forms. The simplest, naturally, is failure to consult those who may be affected by one's actions-a failing to which all American administrations are prone for reasons which normally have as much to do with the tortuous nature of the decision-making process in Washington as with deliberate bloodymindedness. Nevertheless, a certain "macho" element has been added in the case of the Reagan regime, which was well expressed by Vice President Bush when he was faced with a complaint on this score during his European trip in February: "I'm sorry. The United States is leader of the free world and under this Administration we are beginning once again to act like it."

This reply, needless to say, completely misses the point, which is that the "free world" is a concept based upon consent, and leadership of it, unlike leadership of the Warsaw Pact, entails carrying your followers with you or ultimately losing their cooperation. Nobody denies the sovereign right of the United States to decide and act upon its perception of American national interests; but where, as in the Middle East or Central America, it is looking for support from others or claiming to act on their behalf, a price has to be paid in the tedious coinage of discussion, persuasion and occasional frustration. This is a banal reflection to which, no doubt, most officials in Washington would give pious assent in principle, but the fact remains that, for example, the allies were given no advance warning of the American change of course in the Middle East in the fall of 1983, still less of important operational decisions such as the bombing of Syrian missile emplacements. The failure to give the British government any serious opportunity to discuss the invasion of Grenada was not perhaps so much of a crime, but it was still a clumsy error.

Unilateralism is not, however, simply a perversion of leadership. It is a general state of mind, a kind of insensitive nationalism that can appear in a wide variety of contexts, both deliberate and unconscious. It has manifested itself in the Administration's impatience with multilateral organizations which it cannot bend to its own purposes-in its attitude toward the United Nations and in its refusal in December to re-fund the International Development Association (the World Bank's soft loan operation) at an adequate level. Even the tenable decision in December to give a year's notice of U.S. withdrawal from the United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organization was inevitably colored in its impact by these attitudes and other actions.

Rather different, but still the expression of a determination to press a narrowly defined national interest, was the President's refusal at the Williamsburg economic summit to make the slightest modification of American economic policy to meet the concerns of his partners about the effects of U.S. interest rates on their own economies or the collective economy of the West. There have, of course, been perfectly good arguments, or at least rationalizations, for each of these actions-the U.N. agencies are not always well run, their politics are often tiresomely self-indulgent, the Europeans are always complaining about something and if it isn't unemployment it's inflation-and yet, taken together, they represent a capitulation to the baleful notion that international relations is a zero-sum game.

The second area in which criticism is not necessarily premature is that of morality. It has always been part of the American appeal and the basis of any serious American claim to a special mission that the United States is on the side of international law and natural justice. Never mind that in the course of American history this argumentation has frequently been self-serving and has even more frequently had to be brushed aside in favor of realpolitik: it has continued to inspire the Western Alliance and has justified for many Americans the idea that their country should assume the burdens of the postwar world.

The present Administration has been at great pains, and legitimately so, to see that this idealism flows along anti-Soviet channels, but it is in some danger of appearing to claim that the defeat of communism is of such moral value that it sanctions almost any lesser immoralities that may conduce to this end. Thus the flagrant breach of international convention (to put it no higher) involved in applying American law in 1982 to those foreign subsidiaries which defied the gas pipeline embargo was justified by the virtue of denying the Soviet Union hard currency; the invasion of Grenada was justified by the need to prevent the Cubans gaining control of an important new airfield; the deliberate subversion of the Nicaraguan government was legitimized by the hope of preventing it from subverting El Salvador. Such casuistry is all very well if it does not have to be used too often; all states are forced to it from time to time. But it is dangerous if it begins to anesthetize its authors to the undesirability, in principle, of compromising their moral position. The fact that no one in Washington could apparently grasp the substantive force of Mrs. Thatcher's complaint, after the Grenadan incident, that Britain had gone to war with Argentina to prevent people invading small islands that were not theirs, suggests that this point may need some attention.

The third criticism that I want to discuss here concerns rhetoric. I have already mentioned some of the most hectic examples in 1983 of the Administration's hyperbole in condemning the Soviet Union and all its works (the President's Orlando speech being the most egregious instance), and there is little doubt that they have had a deplorable effect in Europe because they seem to confirm the image of ideology-crazed American fanaticism that the left likes to draw. All the same, it is a mistake to assume that these remarks served no useful purpose in the American context. On the contrary, as President Truman cynically observed in 1947, the only way you can get the American people to spend money on defense is to scare the pants off them. Moreover, in a volatile democracy there are occasions when harsh words are the substitute for far more dangerous action. For example, the President's original remarks about the shooting down of a Korean airliner in Soviet airspace in September were probably excessive and misplaced (the incident was evidently a military snafu and the real Soviet crime was in not apologizing for it). But he would otherwise have found it much more difficult to ride out the immediate surge of public indignation without having to impose all sorts of excessive sanctions.

Yet it is no use pretending that there are not severe drawbacks to the constant use of emotive language to describe another power with whom you are not at war and with whom you do not want to open hostilities. For one thing it may have an effect on your adversary that you do not intend. Soviet paranoia is jumpy and dangerous enough as it is without adding to it by verbal persecution. More serious, however, is the effect on your own side, some of whom may take you at your literal word. It is true that the Soviet Union is an evil empire, but if you go around saying so at the top of your voice, someone is going to demand why, that being so, you are not prosecuting a Holy War against it; and if you reply that that would be too dangerous, you may rapidly find yourself threatened with replacement by somebody with more religious fervor and less concern for sublunary survival.

It may be, as I have said, that President Reagan ultimately does desire to go Crusading. But it seems more likely on the evidence of a confused and confusing year that he wants, like the rest of us, a lot of incompatibles-a peaceful world, an end to Soviet communism, a balanced budget, reelection as President of the United States in 1984. And of these, there is a strong chance he wants the first and last the most-not least, perhaps, because they are connected.

1 Gallup Political Index. No. 270, February 1983, p. 18.



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  • David Watt was from 1978 to the end of 1983 the Director of The Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) in London.
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