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 the ideologists’ wishes.

While operational signals first require actual decisions by the Administration (in major cases by the President himself), declaratory signals emanate from a variety of sources, some entirely non-official. Presidential rhetoric provides one source of declaratory signaling, of course—during Ronald Reagan’s years an important one. But another source is the spoken and written words of people who come into office with the President, as distinct from the permanent bureaucracy.

The outside world makes its assessments of the international stance of any given administration from the mix of signals it receives from all U.S. sources, weighing operational against declaratory. In Moscow there is an entire learned institute to interpret these signals, and every foreign office has an "American desk" trying to do much the same thing in smaller ways. Some of Washington’s troubles with Western allies during recent years, incidentally, have arisen from the diversity of sources of signals. London, Paris and Bonn are not disconcerted by changes of America’s chief decision-maker; they change their own prime ministers and presidents and chancellors with reasonable regularity. But there is no precise equivalent in those capitals to the arrival of the new presidential entourage of policymakers; their own policymakers are well-entrenched permanent officials. Moreover, the Reagan circle tended to seem more "Reaganite" than the President himself, just as the Carter men had seemed more "Carterite" than that President. This is not surprising, since those who have been in electoral politics for many years (as tends to be the case for the persons who actually secure the nominations) have usually had the sharpest edges of their ideological stances blunted by the rough and tumble of political life.

The obvious differences in political philosophy between Presidents Carter and Reagan camouflage some basic points of distinct similarity. Each perceived and presented the conflicts of international politics in largely moral terms. Both implied that the moral assumptions of American foreign policy are not only important in themselves, but provide useful weapons in the American diplomatic armory. And both adhered to the notion of American "exceptionalism": U.S. society as the "shining city on a hill," its values a beacon for all the world.

In all that, both Presidents are heirs to a long-standing American tradition. Moralism and legalism have been central strands in American diplomacy from the earliest years of America’s emerging consciousness of the United States as a power in a world of powers. To some analysts those strands have seemed the source of the disasters of U.S. policy making; to others the source of its major accomplishments. To the outsider both points of view have evidence to back them up. Some major disasters (like the involvement in Vietnam) and some major successes (like the process of European recovery stemming from the Marshall Plan, or the Japan Peace Treaty) were rooted in both strategic calculation and moral feeling among the policymakers of the time.

Though it may seem a little cynical to say so, the real differences do not seem to have been in either quantity or content of the moral assumptions. The basic point, at least on the evidence of the turnabout of American sentiments, seems to be that moral feeling is unlikely to "stay the course" when the strategic calculations that go with it prove unsound. The process of disenchantment, once it starts (as with Vietnam in 1967-68), sweeps away the original moral assumptions that went into policy. Thus the moral components that go into policymaking have to be judged not only on their own merits but on whether they conduce to realism in the strategic assessments that go with them.


Declaratory signals may sometimes look, at first glance, as if they were operational. The Reagan defense budget, for example, may be considered a strong declaratory signal—a statement of intent about the future balance of forces—rather than a transformation of the existing balance of the 1980s. The almost universal popular impression is that President Reagan has achieved—not merely proposed—an unprecedented rate of increase in U.S. military muscle. But I would argue that since the image of U.S. military weakness was created chiefly by words (mostly from the Reagan camp from the Republican nomination fight of 1976 onwards) it is logical that more words from the same sources should have been effective in readjusting that somewhat distorted image to reflect the reality of effective (though asymmetrical) superpower parity.

President Carter also made potent use of words, but it would be quite unfair to attribute all the troubles of U.S. foreign policy in the four Carter years to his own declaratory signals. Even without such signals, an adversary assessment in Moscow or elsewhere could reasonably have perceived a window of low-risk, low-cost opportunities. The general signals from American society as a whole, and from the liberal foreign policy establishment in particular, had been conveying a message of dwindling opposition to other countries’ adventurism ever since 1975. National battle-fatigue, progressively increasing from 1968 and overwhelming by 1975, made the foreign policy mood of the early Carter years inevitable, and impossible to conceal from adversary policymakers. Even before Carter, in fact, Congress had sent the world a very loud declaratory signal in the Angolan resolutions of 1975-76 that the American political mood would be enough to block any operational policy of a tough-minded sort for the immediate future, even though the Administration may have wanted it. In that political mood of 1976, part of Jimmy Carter’s appeal was the moral reassurance he provided during a time when American values and traditions were still under heavy attack at home and abroad. He encapsulated in his political image traces of an earlier, more innocent America and of small-town values.

To stand for virtue reasserted is probably always an asset in domestic politics. In international politics, however, a reputation for conspicuous virtue is likely to be construed as meaning that the new man is naïve. The saying "nice guys finish last" originated in U.S. sporting circles, but a rather similar estimate is implicit in the conventional wisdom of diplomats. And that was an image that Carter could hardly escape, given his status as a Christian fundamentalist, a Sunday school teacher, and particularly his espousal of Wilsonian values in world affairs.

Woodrow Wilson is still, no doubt, a hero to many Americans. But that is not really so in the outside world, except among a few remaining left-liberal and Third World optimists. In the Soviet Union, Wilson is remembered for the interventions of 1918 and as the standard-bearer of a theory of international politics competitive with Lenin’s. In the chancelleries of Europe his name tends to be associated with high-minded ineffectiveness, failure to get the United States to take on the responsibilities of membership in the League of Nations, and unrealistic insistence on introducing notions of national self-determination in areas where they were bound to disrupt the chances of viable settlements. The hearts of European policymakers tend to sink at the thought of Wilsonian preachings from the White House. President Carter’s version of moral rectitude in international politics was centered on human rights rather than national self-determination, but the human rights concept was even more disruptive to some of America’s allies in the late 1970s (such as Iran) than the notion of self-determination had been for some of America’s European allies in Wilson’s time.

In fact, the case of Iran seems to indicate that well-amplified U.S. declaratory signals can begin to erode a fragile personal autocracy even before their author is in power. According to various observers, including Sir Anthony Parsons, who was British ambassador in Teheran at the time, the Shah’s self-confidence began to crumble from the time of the Carter election campaign, and this damage does not appear to have been retrieved even by the considerable support in actual operational terms he received during the early Carter years.


The first four Reagan years bore an almost eerie similarity to the years 1949 to 1954, when the concept of "negotiation from strength" had a previous airing. In 1949, as in 1979, serious and respectable analysts were seeing a phase of major danger about five years ahead, with a "window of vulnerability" developing, because of a perceived major change in the underlying strategic balance. In 1949 the change was a true strategic milestone: the first Soviet atomic test. Along with the additional jolt of the Korean War, the West embarked on a major countervailing reaction: an ambitious NATO arms buildup, with U.S. defense expenditures reaching more than 14 percent of GNP by 1953 (twice the rate of the Reagan years). Then, as now, a technological "quick fix" to restore the original Western advantage glimmered in the minds of policymakers. Then it was the replacement of fission weapons by fusion; now it is the Strategic Defensive Initiative (SDI) or "Star Wars" image.

A powerful sense of déjà vu hung over the early 1980s for anyone who was once preoccupied with the early 1950s. Andrei A. Gromyko (the only major policymaker at a more or less similar level of influence in both patches of history) ought to be particularly haunted by it, because then, as now, there was a long drawn-out Soviet succession crisis which affected his personal fortunes. Then the succession was to Stalin, now the succession is still really to Brezhnev. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles then, like President Reagan until mid-1984, was given to combative but not always convincing declaratory signals, for instance, the doctrine of "massive and instant retaliation" in 1954.

Robert Murphy, one of Dulles’ chief aides in that earlier phase of "negotiation from strength," once said that some of his master’s signals had to be taken with "a whole warehouse full of salt." The question remains whether that level of skepticism can be retrospectively justified for the Reagan years. But we must start with a point whose importance is seldom conceded in European analyses, or liberal Democratic ones. Despite the general souring of relations between Washington and Moscow during the Reagan first term, there was not in fact a serious adversary crisis between the superpowers in that period.

A serious crisis between the United States and the Soviet Union has to be defined as one that produces not merely an exchange of insults but a measurably increased risk of actual hostilities. By that criterion, no such crisis can be discerned. The nearest approach, perhaps, was the shooting down of the Korean airliner in September 1983. Commentators who should have known better invoked the memory of Sarajevo, but the very evocation of that flashpoint makes it clear how remote the two great adversaries of the contemporary world were from that brink of an earlier era. This is reassuring, for it means that the crisis-management techniques and other factors which have built some stability into the central balance of power over the past 40 years have remained workable, even after several years of robust and continuing asperities between the superpowers.

To say this is not, of course, to deny that relations between Moscow and Washington by 1983 were at their lowest point since the death of Stalin 30 years earlier. One may fully assent to that proposition, and agree also that the situation had disastrous consequences for some areas of international life (especially the effort toward arms control), and yet still hold that the basic mechanisms for preserving the peace, such as they are, do not appear to have been much impaired. In fact, perhaps the contrary.

The many crises which were already on stream before January 1981 have not been visibly mitigated, and some have probably been marginally worsened. Poland, Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf war, the Middle East, Central America and the Caribbean, southern Africa, Vietnam and Kampuchea—all bear their normal tides of human misery along the accustomed pathways. I am not proposing an unduly rosy view of international politics during these past four years, merely pointing out that all was actually quiet, save on the rhetorical front, in the central confrontation between the superpower adversaries.

A potential explanation for this state of affairs can be found on the Soviet side of the confrontation. President Reagan’s first term spanned the final decline of Leonid Brezhnev, the quasi interregnum as his death approached, the brief rule of Yuri Andropov, and the early months of another ailing veteran of the Politburo, Konstantin Chernenko. The decisions made in Moscow during those four years were those of men who (like their elderly though sprightly counterpart in Washington) all had good reasons to be conscious of their own mortality. Elderly, ailing men (ayatollahs may perhaps be excepted) are not usually given to bold adventures in foreign policy.

Not only were the decision-makers in Moscow declining in health during the Reagan first term; the Soviet policy machine had too many problems on its hands to take the sort of initiatives which might create more. Afghanistan and Poland, the needs of useful allies in Cuba, Vietnam, South Yemen, Syria and Ethiopia appear to have left few resources even for marginal and faltering allies in Angola and Mozambique, much less for taking on major new commitments. One might also argue that the domestic difficulties in the Soviet sphere of power, largely the results of economic failures, impose their own constraints. Or, less optimistically, one could say that there appears in Soviet policy an alternation, accidental or deliberate, of periods of "forward policy" (as 1976-79) and of relative pause while the gains of the forward policy are consolidated or digested. On that interpretation, the comparative quiet of the first Reagan term could be seen as a natural consequence of Soviet activism in the Carter years. President Reagan, in other words, enjoyed the good fortune of President Carter’s bad fortune. If so, the relative immobilism of Soviet policy would have to be seen as a short-term phenomenon, not likely to persist for four more years.

Other possible explanations focus on the American side, and involve the distinction between operational and declaratory signals. The contrast between the Reagan and Carter years seems particularly illuminating. It owed more to contrasts in what the two Presidents and their respective entourages said than to any vast differences in what the two Administrations actually did.

Indeed, it is difficult to think of any major operational differences at all, save the sharper and more combative stance during the Reagan years in the Caribbean and Central America and a greater skepticism on arms control (though I would be inclined to put arms control proposals into the sphere of declaratory policy anyway). If one looks at the basic substance of the major operational policies—continuance of support for NATO; continuance of a wary cultivation of China; continuance of support for Israel, along with as much or as little cultivation of moderate Arab governments as is compatible with the Israeli connection; a continuing consciousness that the security importance of Japan outweighs any economic rivalries; continuing orientation to the Association of South East Asian Nations and to the Pacific, including ANZUS pact countries Australia and New Zealand; a continuing restraint of the basic hostility to Vietnam and Iran—on all these it is difficult to see more than marginal change.

Observing these continuities in operational policy and contrasting them with the differences in media images, and the differences also in the overall international fortunes of the two Administrations, it becomes difficult to resist the inference that President Reagan’s declaratory signals have been, on balance, useful to his purpose, not only electorally but internationally, and that the opposite was true for President Carter. Perhaps this outcome is as yet more clearly visible in Carter’s case, when we remember that the mildness of his initial declaratory signals left him derisively (and unfairly) still seen at the end as a "terminal case of meekness," despite actual operational policies in some respects tougher than any so far in the Reagan period.


To substantiate this assessment, let us look at a small cross-section of policy issues during the Reagan years and compare the declaratory and the operational signals that have been associated with them: China, Lebanon, the Persian Gulf, Poland, the Korean airliner, and the trans-European gas pipeline.

On China policy, the difference between the early declaratory signals that seemed to establish President Reagan as a dedicated friend of Taiwan and his actual operational policy, following precisely the path taken by Presidents Nixon and Carter to the Great Wall, is so obvious as hardly to need demonstrating.

Lebanon offers a more subtle and complex pattern, but one, to my judgment, of much the same meaning. Initially the Reagan Administration approach seemed to promise a discarding of earlier U.S. mediatory efforts in favor of something both more ambitious and more in line with stated neoconservative positions. In March 1981 Secretary of State Alexander Haig told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the objective was to "establish a consensus in the strategic regional sense among the states in the area," all the way from Pakistan to Israel and Egypt. But during the episode of Syrian antiaircraft missiles in April 1981, the Israeli bombing of the Baghdad reactor in June 1981, and the initial phases of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in June 1982, the true operational message seemed to be that Washington was leaving the direction of events in the hands of the local actors.

Then there were the commitment of the marines in August 1982 and the Reagan Plan initiative in September: both ambitious declaratory signals of what was desired and desirable. But that did not really entail a new operational commitment, save in the diplomatic time and energy of U.S. envoy Philip Habib and other policymakers, mostly somewhat below the topmost level. Even the commitment of marines was at a token level. When President Eisenhower put marines into Lebanon in 1958, he used about 14,000 and left them there until the political objectives of the U.S. government had been secured, for the time, and for good or ill. The small detachment that President Reagan put in did not have a military purpose but a diplomatic and political one; it was a declaratory signal. When the marines suffered the casualties of October 1983, the President declared that the United States had "vital interests" in Lebanon. And Secretary of State George Shultz said, "We are in Lebanon because the outcome will affect our whole position in the Middle East. To ask why Lebanon is important is to ask why the Middle East is important." Again, strong declaratory signals.

A few months later, in February 1984, the marines were simply taken out. Congressional opposition, 259 deaths and the opening of election year were enough to make declared vital interests subject to reassessment. By late 1984 Lebanon had in effect been divided into Israeli and Syrian spheres of influence. The Maronite Christians, whose position of dominance in Lebanese internal politics had so long been sustained by the West (first the French and then the Americans), seemed to be losing ascendency to the Muslims. I offer no criticism of that outcome in itself; indeed, I think it may conduce to the chances of long-term stability. My point is merely the disparity between the declaratory signal: "This is interpreted by us as a vital interest," and the operational message that the United States can ultimately sail away. The Eisenhower Doctrine, by late 1984, appeared no longer operative in Lebanon. And to a chorus of surprise, Richard Murphy, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near East and South Asian affairs, could proclaim the Syrians to be no longer "Soviet puppets" as had been assumed so confidently earlier by Reagan spokesmen. On the contrary, the Syrians could be quite "helpful," Murphy told a congressional committee in July 1984, apparently endorsing their role in security and stability. In other words, the declaratory signal by then matched the operational signal: the Reagan Administration, far from being more ambitious in the area than its predecessors, was less ambitious and more prepared to leave local events in local hands.

In the Persian Gulf, one might argue similarly that the Carter Doctrine proved to be non-operative in President Reagan’s time. Again the initial declaratory signals were strong: the transformation of the Rapid Deployment Force into the Central Command, and its fleshing-out with assigned forces such as carrier battle-groups and airborne divisions and fighter wings to a total of almost 300,000 men. But though a major war was in progress in the Gulf throughout the four years of the Reagan first term, there was hardly more than a hint of American intervention, even when tankers were subject to missile attacks. And when mines were laid along the tanker routes, the Western powers merely swept them up, with a bit of Soviet cooperation. On the evidence one would say that there has indeed been a tacit understanding between Washington and Moscow that each would limit its intervention in the area, on the assumption that the other continued to do so.

Again, no one in his or her right mind would complain. The point is just that there was in this case also a chasm, rather than a mere gap, between what the expectations had been back in 1980 of what the Reagan policy would be in the event of local hostilities threatening the Gulf oil routes to the West, and what actually happened. Or, more precisely, did not happen. For the world has in fact proved able to shrug off a major war, now into its fifth year, in which both sides have threatened or damaged oil installations or oil tankers in and around the Gulf. The oil glut persisted despite those events. OPEC has not only been unable to raise oil prices; it had by late 1984 seen the real price of oil fall, as cuts in production had to be made to keep the nominal price hovering somewhere near $29 per barrel. Present U.S. policy in the Gulf looks uncommonly like a tacit acquiescence in the Nixon Doctrine—that local powers must learn to fend for themselves in local crises.

In the Polish crisis, already under way when President Reagan came into office but reaching its decision-point only with the declaration of martial law in December 1981, the pattern hardly varied from earlier East European crises. The rhetoric was vehement, and the debate expressed U.S. outrage, but the actual sanctions against the Soviet Union were exceedingly mild. In particular, grain sales under existing agreements were not restricted; the United States continued to participate in the Helsinki review talks and the Geneva negotiations on arms control; a scheduled meeting between Haig and Gromyko was allowed to proceed. In fact, aside from the suspension of Aeroflot services and some restrictions on high technology purchases, it is difficult to see anything in U.S. operational policy that could have caused much wincing in Moscow. The unfortunate Poles themselves were rather more the true victims of any clampdown, suffering suspension of food aid and other economic blows for a time. Overall, American policy seemed a clear continuation of the tradition of well-signaled U.S. restraint in East European crises, which again dates right back to Dulles in 1953.

Washington’s reactions to the shooting down of the Korean airliner in September 1983 were almost a carbon copy of the reactions to the declaration of martial law in Poland less than two years earlier. Again the level of rhetorical denunciation reached a new crescendo, again there were symbolic gestures of outrage—declaratory signals—like the denial of landing rights for Gromyko’s plane when he sought to make his customary visit to the U.N. General Assembly. But again operational policies were not exactly severe. The grain deal was not rescinded. The Madrid meeting (essentially a continuance of the Helsinki Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe which Reagan had so often denounced) was not only allowed to proceed but was chosen as a venue for a low-key meeting between Shultz and Gromyko. Shortly after the incident the arms control talks were suspended, but that was a Soviet declaratory signal against the Pershing II and cruise deployments, not Washington’s choice.

The Soviet gas pipeline provides an example of a different sort of crisis, an intramural crisis of the NATO alliance. The declaratory signals were as usual fierce: talk of sanctions against America’s closest and most necessary allies. And Washington did have a case; dependence by the West Europeans on Soviet sources for even a small segment of their energy supplies does not seem a good idea, nor does the provision of a new source of hard currency to the Soviet Union. But the Europeans also had a point: their vulnerability to Middle East oil producers is so great that their total level of risk is not more than marginally increased, if at all, by some shift of energy dependence to the Soviet Union. And the Russians need to be able to sell commodities to the West if they are to buy Western goods in return. The advantages of détente, economically but also in human terms, are too great for the European powers to be willing to relinquish them, especially not at the instance of an American Administration as little credited with understanding Europe as that of President Reagan. So the Europeans dug their toes in and ignored the Washington rhetoric. The gas now flows westward, and hard currency eastward; U.S. sanctions have not exactly been overwhelming. Again the contrast was between a tough initial declaratory policy and an ultimate operational policy of shrugging the whole thing off.

Arms control (or the lack of it) provides the most complex example of declaratory signals. Formal proposals were made, such as those presented in the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks and intermediate-range nuclear forces negotiations, but there were informal but perfectly clear indications, evident even before he came to office, that Mr. Reagan was unlikely to be an enthusiast for arms control treaties, judging by all he had said about Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I and SALT II). And then there were his defense proposals, clearly likely to amount to a major rearmament effort, mostly in advanced nuclear weapons.

It is not totally impossible to combine a belief that the United States by 1981 needed to upgrade its nuclear capacity in some fields vis-à-vis the Soviet Union with a belief that arms control treaties have merit in promoting the stability of the general strategic relationship with the Soviet Union. But to formulate policies giving weight to both objectives takes more specialized knowledge of the field than even his aides would claim for the President. Given the necessities of the arms buildup, the nature of some of the arms control appointments made, and the actual process of the negotiations, no one reasonably conversant with the issues could have been surprised at the outcome, or lack of outcome, of the formal initiatives in the first Reagan term. An air of "doing it for the record" (ingenious though the proposals were) hung over them from the first. Nevertheless, and despite Reagan’s earlier denunciations of SALT II, that unratified treaty seems to have remained operational. And despite heavy hints that the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty might be discarded, it has so far been preserved.


These instances seem to add up to reasonably solid evidence that on the whole the diplomatic bark of the Reagan Administration has been considerably fiercer than its bite; that is, the pattern has been one of declaratory signals a good deal sharper than the operational ones. There is one obvious area where policy may be seen as an exception to that rule: Central America and the Caribbean. In Nicaragua, the Administration has tried to see what some very heavy-handed declaratory signaling could accomplish. Possibly that will prove a mere prelude to actual combat operations. But perhaps the general Reagan pattern will be maintained, that of declaratory signals fiercer than operational policies, at least as compared with Eisenhower’s 1954 covert intervention in Guatemala, Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs fiasco and Johnson’s 1965 use of marines in the Dominican Republic.

The point of real interest, however, is not in which areas the Administration’s bark has proved fiercer, but whether it can be argued with any plausibility that the fierceness of the signaling has precluded the necessity for action. Could it be that the rhetoric has raised assessments in Moscow of a higher level of risk in any kind of Soviet forward policy, making the "correlation of forces," the central concept in a Leninist analysis, look less favorable? Factors against adventurism stemming from the Soviet side were, in any case, strong. Even a slight extra weight of assessed risk, created by U.S. declaratory signals, might have proved substantial enough to tip the scales.

If we compare that putative payoff from one kind of declaratory policy with the misfortunes of the Carter period when an alternative kind of declaratory policy was in force (though the operational policies were not all that different), it seems to suggest a revised view about the general relationship between declaratory and operational signals—a view possibly applicable beyond this eight-year stretch of American experience.

Both sets of signals contribute to the expectations which the superpowers have of each other. Those expectations in turn are incorporated into the assessments of costs and risks which determine actual policy decisions on both sides of the central balance. But there is an important distinction between declaratory signals and operational signals that is particularly relevant to the present and the most recent past (the last two decades, more or less). The powers have for these 20 years or so had independent means of seeing for themselves, with the aid of satellites and such, what the capabilities of the other side are. So the ambiguities from which have traditionally arisen the miscalculations that precipitate crises, and sometimes wars, are no longer in the field of relative capabilities. They are almost exclusively now in the field of will; sometimes the will of a society as a whole, sometimes the will of its dominant political elite, but more often the will of the chief decision-maker and the small group of policymakers who immediately surround him.

And of that small group’s will, in a situation of crisis, no satellite can provide direct observation. Operational policy does provide some signals bearing on will, of course, but in this particular field declaratory policy—speeches and such—provides the most direct guide to mood, and thus cannot safely be discounted by an adversary as a signal of will. In other words, declaratory signals may be a rather more important component of the total mix of signals now than they were before the age of surveillance (i.e., before about 1965) because the remaining ambiguities of the power balance are in the area of will rather than capacity, and declaratory signals tend to determine the image of will which each group of adversary decision-makers forms of the other.

In summary, a general war in the nuclear age is more likely to come from miscalculation than from deliberate challenge, and miscalculation, in the age of surveillance, is more likely to derive from uncertainties about the will of the chief decision-maker in the adversary camp than about the strategic capacities of the two systems. Khrushchev’s apparent miscalculation about Kennedy offers a parallel: he is reported to have come away from their Vienna meeting in 1961 convinced that the young new President was "too liberal to fight." The genesis of the Cuban missile crisis, undoubtedly the most dangerous war-threatening crisis of the entire nuclear period, may in part be seen in that assessment. Carter was perhaps, because of his initial declaratory signals, in some danger of accidentally engendering that same kind of calculation or miscalculation; Reagan is clearly not. The preservation of peace rests, unfortunately, on nothing more substantial than the system of expectations in Moscow and Washington as to how the decision-makers in the other capital will react in the event of policies unacceptable to them. So one would not wish any kind of dangerous illusion to creep into those sets of expectations, such as the illusion that the other side had "no option but détente." Disillusion is no doubt very embittering. Illusion, however, is a great deal more dangerous in international politics. If either adversary has no option but détente, why should the other pay any price to preserve the détente? Soviet policy in the late 1970s might be taken as partial evidence of that mood, so Soviet reassessments, after the Reagan inauguration, were therefore useful rather than damaging to the basic mechanism that keeps the peace, in the sense of helping disperse any such illusion, and thus reducing the chance of some lethal miscalculation.


It probably would be too optimistic to believe that noisy declaratory signals—i.e., hostile rhetoric—can become a substitute for more destructive international behavior. That would mean that the two superpowers had been sensible enough to adopt the technique of gorillas deep in their respective patches of jungle, loudly beating their respective chests—not as a prelude to fighting but because they want to avoid doing so—these declaratory signals being an established ritual for ensuring that their respective interests are not unacceptably encroached upon. Still, at least in the Western world and especially in the hands of a professional "communicator" like Ronald Reagan, rhetoric and gesture do seem to have been adequate substitutes for operational toughness with most of his supporters.

At this point, one final feature of the Reagan foreign policy, the popularity of the Grenada invasion, becomes illuminating. The wresting of that tiny island from the group of erratic left-wing thugs who had murdered the prime minister and half his cabinet seems to have been justifiably popular on the island itself, and I have no quarrel with the view that the upshot will enhance the Grenadians’ chances for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But in terms of geopolitical realities it was no big deal. The nationalist enthusiasm for the success of U.S. forces does seem rather on a par with proudly lauding a steamroller for its success in cracking a walnut.

What might, however, be said in approval of the Grenada operation was that as a declaratory signal of a dramatic sort it worked very well indeed. It focused the attention of the entire world, at least for a week or two, on that tiny patch of land, and on Washington’s will (no one doubted the capability) to do something about developments it did not like in the Caribbean. The President even picked up a bonus when Suriname, having seen what happened in Grenada, sent its own Cubans packing. So, in effect, Mr. Reagan secured some inhibition on the growth of Cuban influence in two areas for the price of one, as well as a great deal of popularity with the U.S. electorate. He is an intuitive politician, and his intuitions were clearly on target in the decision to launch the Grenada operation at the time of the marine casualties in Lebanon.

Any such apparent payoffs from the Reagan policies must of course be balanced against costs. The chief debit, undoubtedly, in the eyes of most observers was the "opportunity cost" of the failure of arms control efforts. I would not myself rate this so high as many commentators, because I doubt that the early 1980s could have been a good period for arms control even if Jimmy Carter had been returned to power. The rows over the Pershing II and cruise missiles would have been the same; the ambivalence of the Europeans would have been the same; the felt need for NATO to stick to its 1979 resolution would have been the same. The rate of increase in military spending might perhaps have been somewhat less than President Reagan has secured, but in fact the Carter proposals on the MX (the most controversial item) were a great deal more extravagant both on numbers and basing than the program that the Reagan policymakers have apparently settled for, bowing to the recalcitrance of Congress: no vastly expensive mobile basing system, and probably less than half the numbers. Even attitudes on the nuclear freeze and the arms control "build-down" ideas might not have been all that different, since the freeze in particular is the sort of notion easier to go along with in opposition than in government.

Ought one then to say that the chief costs have been in the level of irritation at various Reagan declaratory signals among the policymakers of his major allies? But whether NATO has been seriously damaged—beyond what it might have been if Jimmy Carter had stayed in power—seems to me again quite doubtful. NATO conduces so solidly to the respective national interests of its European members, and is so well understood to do so by the foreign policy elites currently in power in those capitals (and even by their domestic political opposite numbers), that it will take a great deal more than harsh words about gas turbines to really shake the alliance. And though European policymakers and analysts sharpen their considerable wits on both varieties of American foreign policy moralism, on the whole they probably see the more real danger in President Carter’s kind of Wilsonianism, especially in respect to the West’s fragile relationship with the Third World. (The reverse is true, of course, of left-liberal critics and also of many Third World elites. They tend to respond sympathetically to the Wilsonian value-system, at least until they work out what national self-determination might imply in the cases of their own national minorities, and what any serious observance of human rights might do to their own authority structures.)

One might make a better case for true damage to U.S. credibility in the Middle East, with certainly a reduction of assumed U.S. capacity to control events, whether one is thinking of Lebanon or the Gulf. The Saudis have been irritated by the neglect of the Fahd Plan and by the U.S. debates over the supply of aircraft and missiles. Kuwait and Jordan have been irritated enough to purchase Soviet missiles. Morocco has contracted its improbable marriage of convenience with Libya, a government ranking almost equal with the Soviet Union in the demonology of American neoconservatives. Syria has undoubtedly advanced its status and sphere of influence, not only vis-à-vis Lebanon but also the United States, and even apparently Israel. And the Soviet Union, which had been successfully excluded from real (as against titular) power in Middle Eastern crises might be deemed to be back now, as the shadow behind Syria. All the Arab countries, even Egypt, have obviously been irritated by the strategic cooperation agreement with Israel.

Yet even assuming some loss of U.S. influence in the Middle East, I am not sure one ought to go on to assume reduced prospects of reasonable stability there. Actual settlements may be out of reach in the foreseeable future, but paradoxically, a more viable balance of conflicts seems to be emerging from the increased Syrian ascendancy, a rearrangement of alliances in the Arab world, and the Israelis’ recognition of the limits of their capacity to operate in Lebanon. Again paradoxically, the strategic cooperation agreement would thus prove a prelude to some Israeli retreat, not an increase in dominance.


Finally, we must look at what will probably seem an insuperable objection to any policy that allows a substantial gap between declaratory and operational signals: that the gap is bound to be noticed after a while and thus the credibility of future declaratory signals will be diminished, not only among allies and in the Middle East and Central America, but much more importantly, in Moscow. True, but what that means chiefly is that the Administration will need a new policy for the new term. In a wildly optimistic moment, one might hope that some such thought, along with the simple cynical electoral calculation, was among the reasons for the universally noticed Reagan change of rhetorical style in the last year of his first term. The true nature of that change, in the terms we have been using, was that the declaratory signals were softened to match the continuing mildness of the operational signals. Obviously, in the second term the original gap could easily be restored by a new sharpening of the declaratory signals, or the two could be kept in tandem, so to speak, by a sharpening of both.

It is, however, difficult to see what exactly would be the advantage of such a course, either for the President personally, or for his Republican Party backers, who will want to continue keeping Democrats out of the White House, and who will presumably continue to remember that the war issue was the one on which their man came closest to being vulnerable. Moreover, though Mr. Reagan was able to campaign in 1980 and during his first two or three years in office on the alleged deficiencies in his predecessor’s defense policies, that will hardly do for his fifth and subsequent years in power. From 1985 any further talk of American strategic weakness will imply a reflection on his own past policies.

Thus it has become logical for the Administration instead to imply (as was done in the September 1984 U.N. speech) that the "strength-building" part of the negotiation-from-strength concept is already adequately under way. Therefore the phase of negotiation may be approaching. If the President can successfully make this transition, he might even manage to avoid the difficulty which defeated the policymakers who propounded the same strategy in the early 1950s: the difficulty of choosing the moment when the optimal chance of diplomatic progress has been reached. During that earlier historic phase, the best situation for the West in terms of potential negotiating leverage seems in retrospect to have been late 1953, with the Soviet decision-makers still in the phase of post-Stalin disarray, and while the impetus of the first NATO rearmament effort still looked strong. But that moment was lost, and by 1956 a new and rather incautious Soviet decision-maker, Nikita Khrushchev, was in control, and a new upswing in Soviet strategic capacity was under way.

That cycle does not have to be repeated, though all the conditions that make it likely already exist. The parallel with the early 1950s could be bleakly completed with a new rise in the level of danger as the Strategic Defense Initiative research begins bearing fruit, and perhaps an early 1990s crisis to parallel 1962.

That could happen, but sufficient intelligence applied to U.S. policy could prevent it. There is a case for assuming that on both sides of the balance a new phase of detente and arms control looks possible and desirable. On the Soviet side, the only interpretation which makes sense of Mr. Gromyko’s decision to come calling before the election is that the decision-makers in Moscow had by September 1984 concluded that they were stuck with Mr. Reagan, little as they liked him, for another four years, and must pursue a damage-limiting strategy by trying to re-create enough détente to take the impetus out of the SDI research, if possible. Otherwise they would have to try and match it: a very expensive decision for their faltering economy. Once they had decided on that strategy, it became tactically logical to make the bid before the election, when the Administration’s incentive to appear conciliatory was at its strongest.

It may be objected that while the Russians had nothing to lose by such an approach, President Reagan will be in severe danger of losing the ideological support of neoconservative "true believers" if he continues the softened declaratory signals of election year into the new term, and particularly if his operational signals indicate an actual move toward negotiation and détente. There are indications already of some loss of faith in the President among the sharper-tongued gurus of this group.

But in his second term President Reagan obviously has to worry about how he will stand with history rather than about the support of groups once tactically useful, but now certainly no longer necessary. There is reason to be skeptical that he is a typical neoconservative: he seems to lack the urbane sharpness, the pessimism and disillusion, and the worries about theoretical consistency that distinguish the more notable members of the intellectual clique who developed that doctrine. Many of them are people for whom Soviet policy, especially in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, has been a source of true emotional trauma, especially if they were liberals or radicals to begin with. That gives them some piercing insights, but it does not give them much in common with an easygoing, relaxed Californian of Irish Protestant background, with a sunny optimism of temperament and a rather short attention span. So there appears psychological scope for a parting of the ways.

If the President does lose the neoconservatives, or they him, it will make relations with his European allies a good deal easier. The thoroughly conservative foreign policy establishments of the European powers tend to regard American neoconservatives with a jaundiced eye, because the neoconservatives tend to picture the Europeans as hovering perpetually on the brink of Finlandization. That is seen as a very real insult by the European policymakers concerned, since it implies stupidity as well as cowardice.

Of course only the second term will determine which way the choices will go, but the auguries for renewed dialogue and perhaps even eventual gains in the field of arms control appeared promising as 1985 began. Soviet alarm over the potentialities in the Strategic Defense Initiative has already been heavily signaled, and appeared a major incentive for Moscow to try further shifts in tactical positions. The need to bring the deficit, and therefore the arms budget, under control had almost the same effect for Washington. The pressure of grassroots feeling about nuclear dangers and the discontents of their respective allies bore on both superpowers, though asymmetrically. A reason for arms control still better than any of those is, or should be, present in the minds of decision-makers on both sides: the pressing need for reinforced crisis stability at a time when the balance between offensive and defensive weaponry may be liable to sudden change. There are not many arms control objectives of equal urgency and importance for both sides, but crisis stability is one, and it could provide the guiding thread through the labyrinth their arms control negotiators are about to enter.

As a final paradox, one might note that despite the fact that Presidents Carter and Reagan were both foreign policy moralists in their respective ways, their contrasted experiences appear splendidly to exemplify Machiavelli’s reflections on the roles of fortuna and virtu in political life. Fortune has certainly been with Mr. Reagan so far, in comparison to his recent predecessors. Unlike those who came to office in 1969, he had no disastrous war to wind up. Unlike Mr. Carter, he was not borne into office on a wave of liberal guilt and loss of U.S. self-confidence. On the contrary, he has benefited domestically and internationally by the swing of the pendulum back to nationalist buoyancy. As a patch of historical experience, it tends to reduce an analyst to reflections about the luck of the Irish. But from the point of view of the theory of foreign policy, the greater importance of declaratory over operational signals in an age of surveillance may be the idea to be noted.

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  • Coral Bell is Senior Research Fellow at Australian National University. She is the author of The Diplomacy of Détente and editor of the series Agenda for the Eighties.
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