American Policy: Lost Opportunities

Courtesy Reuters

When the Reagan Administration first came into office, it seemed for a considerable period determined to repudiate totally policies that had dominated postwar U.S. foreign policy. Senior officials publicly compared the Soviet Union to Napoleonic France—or worse; they suggested that arms control negotiations should not be convened until Soviet behavior in the world’s trouble spots improved—an unlikely prospect if the Administration’s assessment of the nature of the Soviet regime was even partially correct. The Reagan Administration not only refused to ratify the SALT II treaty, with its limitations on future deployments, but also appeared ready to refuse to honor these restraints even informally. When arms talks did begin, the Administration waited months to develop its proposals, and then tabled suggestions so unbalanced that the only possible purpose could be to ensure that they would be non-negotiable, as then Secretary of State Alexander Haig, Jr., subsequently pronounced some of them. The Administration veered so dangerously far from the policy toward the People’s Republic of China laid down by three previous administrations that Mr. Haig warned of a new estrangement of Beijing.

Eventually, a combination of domestic pressures, alliance insistence and diplomatic realism compelled the Administration to pull back from these policy changes, which would have revolutionized America’s postwar posture. In Administration rhetoric, the Soviet Union was transformed from an implacable aggressor into a difficult competitor with which America might nonetheless do business, albeit under closely controlled conditions. Arms control proposals were steadily altered to make them at least appear more negotiable. The Administration found that the national interest was served by honoring the provisions of SALT II (even if, for reasons never entirely clear, the treaty remained sufficiently flawed as to preclude U.S. ratification). In June 1985, the President surprised both critics and supporters by deciding that the United States would dismantle rather than dry-dock an aging Poseidon submarine in order to remain within the limits set by SALT II. And the President visited China

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