THE past year has been marked by intensified debate about the premises and direction of foreign policy in the years ahead. It has been fired in part by reactions to some of the Reagan administration's actions and proposals. And it has posed again some of the issues debated in the late 1940s and early 1950s, especially about relations with the Soviet Union. That earlier debate produced a bipartisan consensus in the West on a global strategy calculated to promote security, prosperity, and political stability. It remained intact for nearly two decades. That consensus was undermined by the impact of Vietnam, disillusion with the 1972-73 d'etente, disruption of the economic order by inflation and the oil shocks, growth of Soviet military power, and erratic United States leadership.
For over a decade the US and its allies have lacked a common strategy. The deep cleavages about US foreign policy have been manifested by the conflicts between the executive and Congress, within the administration and within Congress, and among supporters as well as critics of the administration.
The issues in dispute are central:
Should the US conduct relations with the Soviet Union as an ideological struggle, requiring a response to every Soviet gain, however minor? Should it back any opponent of a communist regime, regardless of our practical interests? Or should the US practice a more selective containment?
Should the US seek military parity or primacy? What should be the role of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI)? Does arms control serve our interests or not?
How important are economic order and progress to world stability in the coming years?
How essential to our interests are our alliances with Western Europe and Japan, and security and economic cooperation with them? Should the US seek to limit or loosen those ties to gain freedom for unilateral action?
Are the developing nations (LDCs) primarily an arena for East-West rivalry, or are relations with them important in themselves?
What conditions justify use of force or intervention in the internal affairs of other states?
Do international organizations like the United Nations essentially serve our adversaries, or have they a role in advancing US interests?
The answers of various groups cover a broad spectrum. Even the neo-conservatives concede that they diverge widely among themselves. The more prominent of them urge an ideological foreign policy, play down the significance of interdependence and economic factors, and favor greater unilateralism. To me, such policies seem out of touch with the realities of our times.
In my opinion, the most convincing recent effort to grapple with these basic issues comes from an intelligent and experienced foreigner -- Helmut Schmidt. In a short but forthright book just published, he outlines ``A Grand Strategy for the West.'' His strategy seeks to build on experience, taking account of changed conditions and rectifying past mistakes. His approach is global.
His premise is that interdependence means neither the medium powers of Western Europe or Japan, nor the US can meet their economic or political goals or achieve security by national means alone. They need a shared strategy for effective cooperation. Solidarity among these three regions is the foundation for his strategy; he sharply criticizes aspects of US leadership and of West European and Japanese abdication of responsibility.
Without attempting to summarize his analysis, its main elements are:
A two-tract approach to the Soviet Union, based on firmly deterring aggression and pressure, while seeking a more stable relationship where feasible. To this end, arms control should be actively pursued so far as it can be reliably verified.
In Europe, a stable military balance requires a sufficient conventional buildup by Western Europe (integrating French forces), in order to shift to the Soviets any decision for first use of nuclear weapons.
Economic order and growth are essential for world stability. The US failure to deal with its budget deficit is the gravest threat to the international economy. Complementary measures must be taken by the US to cut its deficit and by Europe and Japan to stimulate their economies, as well as to foster more stable exchange rates through suitable national policies and cooperation.
Turmoil and disorder seem inevitable in many developing regions. Both for moral reasons and to prevent Soviet exploitation of misery, the West must provide generous development assistance, and work out a program for coping with the grave LDC debt crisis. It must also encourage the LDCs to reduce military spending, foster foreign investment, and pursue family planning.
Schmidt is optimistic in his confidence that the West has the means and capabilities to carry out such a strategy and to meet the challenges ahead. But he is profoundly pessimistic about the caliber and vision of Western leadership. Current leaders, as well as those aspiring to succeed them, would benefit greatly from reading this perceptive and balanced analysis.
Robert R. Bowie has been concerned with foreign affairs for nearly 40 years on the Harvard faculty, in government posts, and as a consultant.