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Are the conservatives right?

The current administration's approach to foreign policy says much about how the United States sees the rest of the world. We want to be No. 1. We want influence. We like problems that are solved quickly. Our primary preoccupation in international affairs is the Soviet Union.

The present administration has appealed to all these tendencies. Despite occasionally alarmist rhetoric, inappropriate jokes, and sheer disasters, the public generally seems to accept President Reagan's approach.

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What is interesting to a practitioner of foreign affairs is the international reaction, particularly in the third world. The roof has not fallen in on the US.

While emphases have varied with administrations, this country's foreign policy has, in the post-World War II years, taken into account the sensitivities of other nations, especially in Africa and the Middle East, and to a lesser extent, in Latin America. We have tried to balance our interests in the Arab world and Israel. We sought to make our distance from apartheid South Africa credible among black African nations. We refrained from active intervention in Latin America and the Caribbean and sought to resolve old issues such as the Panama Canal.

Reagan administration policies have been based on a strongly assertive America, less reluctant to be seen as aggressive or to risk isolation. Our favoritism toward Israel has never been so clear. Restraints that lasted through several administrations have been lifted on relations with South Africa. We have intervened conspicuously in Central America and the Caribbean.

As one who has experienced personally strong Arab and African reactions in the past, I have been especially curious about the lack of reaction to this country's policies today. There have been no strong diplomatic protests, no breaking of relations, no demonstrations against US embassies. US officials have not been forced to curtail travel because of local sentiment.

Are the conservatives right? Do these nations, like much of the American public, really want a more assertive United States, less sensitive to regional interests, and doing what it considers to be in its own interest? Have we paid too much attention in the past to nations that are inherently weak and vacillating? Should we give full support to those clearly ''on our side,'' regardless of the attitudes of others?

I have asked some foreign friends about the apparent absence of strong reactions to Reagan policies. The answers have been varied. Arabs point to the paralyzing effect of current divisions within the Arab world. Africans point to their growing preoccupation with internal problems, to diminished enthusiasm for active involvement in broader issues. One African official said, ''Nothing else has worked in altering the situation in South Africa; we are prepared to give this new approach a chance.'' A recurring theme, however, with both Arabs and Africans has been, ''We don't like it, but why protest when we believe no one is listening.''

It may be that this change of direction is in the US national interest. Perhaps the world has been waiting for a stronger, more militant United States. Beneath the surface, however, there may be different results.

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After Lebanon, we seem to have less political influence over the course of events in the Middle East than at any time since the creation of Israel. South Africa is pursuing its own policies as a regional power, freer than ever of concern over US attitudes. Even friends in Central America are raising questions about the US embrace.

The battle for influence between East and West occurs not so much in those countries we call our ''firm friends'' as in those weaker areas where feelings on issues such as the Arab-Israeli conflict and apartheid run deep. A case can be made that these parts of the world are silent, not through acquiescence or enthusiasm, but through a feeling that the United States is no longer a just arbiter of regional problems. Such a mood can only produce pressures for national policies independent of the involvement and interests of the United States. The irony of such a result would be that a more assertive, conservative policy, designed to make the United States stronger globally, has had the opposite effect. It may be making us less effective in areas where the global contest is most severe and less relevant to the solutions of the critical regional issues in Africa and the Middle East.

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