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The world in 1981: American power in a troubled world

As we move deeper into 1980 a whole new pattern of foreign policy challenges is taking shape. These challenges have been developing, of course, over the past decade and a half, but they are only now coming into clear focus.

Consequently as we get closer to the end of the century, we may look back and see that 1981 was a landmark in post-World War II history -- and for many reasons than the ideological change represented by the transition in the United States from the Carter to the Reagan presidency.

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In Moscow, incidentally, the 26th congress of the Soviet Communist Party has come and gone without changes or even hints of change in the leadership. Yet a major generational changes trere seems almost inevitable before the next party congress five years hence, and that could have no less a dramatic impact on the rest of the world than the recent change of presidency in the US.

Such changes as there have been globally since the early 1960s are, on analysis, a combination of fact and perception. Together, they ave resulted in a broader recognition (particularly at the level of American public opinion) that the US, while still the strongest nation on earth, has lost both the virtual monopoly of power and the relative freedom of diplomatic maneuver that it enjoyed to nearly two decades after World War II.

For many Americans -- and even for those elsewhere in the world depending on the US shield for their ultimate protection -- this is a source of both impatience and frustration. Within the US htis has produced a resurgence of nationalism, after the interval of brooding withdrawal from the world induced by the trauma of Vietnam. The risk involved in this revival of nationalism is that it could lead the US to overreach itself overhastily in response to a threat from the rival Soviet superpower or its Cuban proxy.

the urge to respond after a period of relative US passivity or indecision is nevertheless understandable. The world scenario is conducive to it.

As we move further into the last quarter of the 20th century, these developments are increasingly apparent:

* The world hegemony of the Western European powers, launched by the Renaissance half a millennium ago, is at an end. Center stage instead are the US and the Soviet Union, locked in a superpower struggle all the more dangerous for mankind because of the size of their nuclear arsenals. Complicating things, the Western Europeans are trying to make themselves at least heard center stage through the European Community.

* The Soviet Union, in many ways very much a second fiddle to the US a quarter of a century ago, has used two decades of detente: (1) to achieve virtual nuclear parity with the US; and (2) to make itself the truly global power, with an oceangoing navy, that Russians have wanted for themselves ever since the days of Peter the Great nearly three centuries ago.

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* The uncontrollable areas of crisis have shifted from Europe (where Wolrd War I and World War II began) to the third world. This is partly because the third world possess many of the vital raw materials needed or coveted by the great powers. It is also partly because regional historical currents and local conflicts have been resumed in parts of Asia and Africa after an artificial interval of stability due to the policng presence of Western European empires. Examples of this are: Indochina, where the Vietnamese have resumed their imperialist expansion; the Middle East, with Jew and Arab disputing occupancy of Palestine, and Iraqis and Iranians locked in their Gulf war; and North Africa, where the Western Sahara is being fought over, and Libya is trying to seize a sphere of influence for itself along the southern edge of the Sahara.

* The emerging vulnerabilith of the industrial leaders of the noncommunist world -- the US, Western Europe, and Japan -- because they have made the mistake of basing their industrial empires on a key source of energy over which they do not have complete control. (Britain may be a poor example these days for anything but civility and television drama; but a century ago its industrial preeminence in the Victorian era was built on coal, of which there was no shortage in its own mines.)

* The disequilibrium in the world economy resulting from the world's having to pay out huge sums for oil to often sparsely populated oil producers. This often removes part of the planet's cash from active and productive circulation.

* The growing tensions between the traditional, successful, rich industrial and technological societies, mainly north of the equator, and the teeming, poor, often hungry, and basically subsistence societies, mainly south of the equator. The latter now constitute newly independent sovereign states. They turn above all to the US for the food they need. Yet, as Americans see it, they ungratefully gang up against the US in such international forums as the United Nations, where, once egregiously underrepresented, they now constitute a numerical majority.

* A related edginess because the human race generally -- better and more speedily informed than even before thanks to instant communication -- senses it may be heading for a showdonw struggle for access to the planet's remaining finite material resources. And the poor fear there is little they can do to prevent the already rich from winning that struggle.

The first foreign policy issue that the new Regan administration has had to face -- partly by its own choosing -- is El Salvador. Mr. Reagan and his hard-line secretary of state, Alexander M. Haig, Jr., have decided to use El Salvador to send a signal to the Soviets that the US is no longer in any mood to be pushed around, least of all in its own Caribbean backyard.

Washingtonhs immediate aim is to buttress the shaky centrist government of El Salvador against armed attack from the extreme left. The latter's weapons for its early January offensive -- contained after a week's fighting -- came mostly through Soviet- and Cuban-organized channels. Domestic critics of the new administration's policy of military help for the government in El Salvador fear that instead of eventually exorcising the threat from the extreme left, US arms will in fact encourage the extreme right.

Beyond that, there arises the question of how the new US policy in El Salvador will affect overall American relations with the third world, toward which the Reagan team seems to be less sympathetic than was the Carter administation.

Another issue, this time far away from the Caribbean, likely to affect US relations with the third world is Namibia (South-West Africa). President Reagan and his advisers have given indications that they will apply less pressure than did the Carter administration to South Africa to accept and carry out a United Nations blueprint for early majority rule for Namibia. What the new US administration eventually does on Namibia will certainly set the tone for its long-term dealings with all black Africa. That includes Nigeria, the giant of the continent and the second-biggest supplier of foreign oil to the US. If offended, Nigeria might well use its oil as a political weapon against the US -- or anybody else.

The Soviet Union waits, of course, to exploit to its advantage any deterioration in relations between the third world and the US. It is in the third world that Moscow sees its greatest opportunities still for "winning hearts and minds" -- not so much, these days, on the basis of Marxist-Leninist ideology as by offering arms and money to nationalist or liberation movements doing battle with Western "imperialism." Perhaps the best known and most determined of these movements is that of the Palestinians. In many ways, Palestine is as much a litmus test as is Namibia by which the third world will judge US attitudes toward the poor, nonwhite world in the 1980s.

But the Palestinians, of course, are part of the much bigger problem of overall Western security in the Middle East and of continued unimpeded Western access to the vital oil of the Persian Gulf. At the Pentagon these days, what was once called the Middle East is referred to as Southwest Asia. The change of nomenclature coincides with a change in perception. No longer does the Arab-Israeli dispute (at the heart of which are the Palestinians) monopolize US attention as the potentially most dangerous crisis area.

A whole sweep of territory from the Bosporus through the Persian Gulf to the Khyber Pass is seen as lying under the threat of Soviet mischief -- if not Soviet expansion. It includes both the heartland of Islam and much of the oil on which the industrialized West and Japan depend as their economic lifeblood. The vulnerability of the West in the area was brought home dramatically by the Shah and the revolution in Iran.

The Camp David negotiating process, which begin with the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and was intended to lead to a broad, overall Middle East settlement , is stalled. The Palestinians are the stumbling block. The new Reagan administration is subordinating this particular question to what ti sees as the Soviet threat to the whole area. Yet there are those who believe that if a solution to the Palestinian problem is not soon found, there is grave risk that the moderate Arab states -- whose stability the US is trying to underpin -- will be lost to the Soviets. That was a view voiced to President Reagan himself by French Foreign Minister Jean Francois-Poncet when the latter was in Washington earlier this year.

The growing tendency of its Western European alles to take collectively a different stand on world problems from that taken by the US could add to tensions between them and Washington. Again this is something Moscow will try to exploit to the utmost. The Soviets already see an opening for themselves in the differing assessments on each side of the Atlantic about where the balance should lie between security and detente. Americans and Europeans want both; but Americans tend to put security first (now that they see how Moscow has taken advantage of detente), while Europeans tends to give priority to detente. There is also a European inclination to assume that security in the alliance is an American responsibility anyhow.

If there is to be a resumption of superpower tensions reminiscent of the cold war of earlier decades, some Europeans yearn to preserve their continent as an island of detente and to try to confine any new confrontations between the giants to the third world. Recognizing this, the Soviets have already used various tactics to try to get the European allies to go back to the decision they made back in 1979 to accept on their territory the new US-produced Pershing II and cruise missiles by 1983 -- provided there is no agreement by then to limit such theater nuclear weaponry on both sides of the line of confrontation between the two power blocs in Europe.

At the moment the Soviets have the advantage with their SS-20 missiles and their Backfire bombers. The new US-produced missiles are intended to offset this. Moscow would like to keep the advantage. Consequently, Soviet propaganda can be counted on to encourage neutralist and antinuclear sentiment in Western Europe wherever it shows itself.

Indeed, among those whose main concern in foreign policy is the well-being is what conventionally called the free world are to be found some Cassandras who warm that the biggest threat to it is the possible drifting apart of the American and European sides of the Atlantic alliance. For them, that is the biggest challenge of the 1980s.

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