The greatest foreign policy weakness of the Reagan administration, as it nears the end of its first six months in office, is with respect to the third world.
This is a natural consequence of the administration's tendency to view the world along an East-West axis to the neglect of the North-South axis. This tendency, in turn, is a reflection of both the strengths and weaknesses which Gen. Alexander Haig brought to the position of secretary of state.
Haig's principal strengths are two. One is an intimate familiarity -- learned from those eminent masters Henry Kissiner and Richard Nixon -- with the processes of government and with the art of manuevering through the intricacies of bureaucratic rivalries. He got off to a somewhat rocky start in applying these lessons, but things have been going more smoothly of late.
The second Haig strong point stems from his European experience as Supreme Commander of NATO, an experience which involved the necessity of getting along with the NATO allies and of being sensitive to their views and problems. No doubt largely as a consequence of this experience, the administration has on the whole behaved admirably with respect to Western Europe all across the spectrum from its ideological soulmates in the Thatcher government of the United Kingdom to socialists (which it must surely view with distaste in private) in the Mitterrand government of France.
Sterner tests are yet to come in connection with coordinating NATO policies on such matters as weapons systems and arms control negotiations with the Soviet Uniond; but so far, so good.
One would wish the administration would be equally sensitive to European views regarding the third world, in which the Europeans have at least as large a stake as the United States.
The administration, for example, has rejected European advice to seek a negotiated political settlement of the difficulty in El Salvador, or at least to get out of the way of others trying to seek such a settlement. In this, it should be noted, the administration has not discriminated against Europeans; it has also ignored similar advice from the Mexicans, the Venezuelans, and even General Torrijos of Panama.
Similarly, the administration has been cool to suggestions, supported by Europeans in concert with most of the rest of the world, that the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund be beefed up to help with the increasingly acute economic problems of the third world. There seems to be a suspicion that these institutions, which are managed by conservative bankers and technocrats, are somehow soft on socialism and may even be promoting it. In contrast, in a throwback to the Eisenhower administration, the encouragement of private investment is seen as the salvation of the third world.
There was a time when the good guys-bad guys dichotomy in American foreign policy had to do with the distinction between democracts and dictators. Again in a throwback to Eisenhower and the reign of John Foster Dulles in the State Department, the Reagan administration is switching this to a distinction between communists and anti-communists and never mind what failings the anti-communists may have.
This approach is seen most clearly in Central America and the Caribbean where the administration is engaged in another study of what to do about an area which the US government has already studied at great length. Certainly the area deserves attention, but history does not inspire confidence in the utility of American efforts to immunize the third world against the communist threat.
One of the things wrong with the American foreign aid program is that neither Congress nor any post-World War II administration has been able to make up its mind whether the purpose was to promote economic development or to promote American political objectives such as anti-Communism. The result is that it has done neither very well. Such development as has occurred has largely been for reasons irrelevant to foreign aid. And the lack of communist success has been due mainly to indigenous, nationalistic resistance.
The analogy to Vietnam drawn by critics of the Reagan policy in El Salvador may be exaggerated, but it seems apt in one respect. During the Johnson administration, John Kenneth Galbraith was asked what would have happened to Vietnam if the US had not chosen to make it an issue.
"I suppose," the Sage of Cambridge replied, "it would be languishing in the obscurity it so richly deserves."