Whether intended or not - and it really may not matter - the Reagan administration has excelled at the ancient art of creating bargaining chips. Almost imperceptibly, the focus of many major international disputes has shifted onto American strengths that have been consciously forged at great political cost by Washington. This fact could take on increased significance as the Reagan administration enters its twilight months.
Let's take a look at several of these disputes.
Strategic arms. The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), whatever its intrinsic merit, is a major motivation for the Soviets to strive for agreement on long-range offensive missile reductions. Even unproved, SDI's potential for imposing costs and vulnerability on Moscow spurs negotiations.
By linking strategic arms reduction to the shelving of SDI, the Soviets have conceded a bargaining strength of immense proportions. It could be cashed for the ``hard currency'' of Soviet concessions on other major issues - verification, sea-launched cruise missiles, mobile missiles, and specific limits for destabilizing first-strike weapons.
Critics, of course, point out that United States reluctance to compromise on SDI is also the main stumbling block to an agreement. But the fact remains that debate now centers on US willingness to modify a program that did not exist at all in the 1970s - and even now is in its rudimentary stages. Washington has, in short, created a situation whereby it possesses far more with which to bargain.
Intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF). Without the protest-accompanied introduction of American Pershing 2 missiles into West Europe in the early 1980s, it would be unimaginable that Moscow would now agree to eliminate its own SS-20 intermediate-range missile force aimed at Europe and Asia.
Many, of course, contend that a withdrawal of US missiles from Europe, as contemplated under current INF negotiations, will serve Soviet aims by exposing Europe to Moscow's superior conventional weaponry.
But whatever its actual military merits, the INF agreement as now conceived would not come to pass without earlier US missile deployments. In other words, the terms and conditions of debate have been purposefully created by Washington in conjunction with its NATO allies. Without the INF force in place, there would be few chips with which to induce Soviet concessions on this issue.
Nicaragua. The contra rebels are of dubious popularity in the US. Their creation and dogged support has, on balance, cost the Reagan administration dearly in terms of political popularity.
But without the contras, even the watered-down peace plan recently forged by Central American leaders would not have been considered by Managua. The contras are virtually the only bargaining chips available against the ruling Sandinistas, and have become the focal point of current Central American debates. Take them away gratuitously, and what incentive would the Sandinistas have to democratize, to halt interference in El Salvador, or limit their Soviet relations? Very little indeed.
Other situations could be cited. Angola is attempting to forge closer ties with Washington to discourage support for the rebel forces of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). The Afghan mujahideen have held their ground against the Soviets in part because of American assistance. And Moscow's recent signs of compromise over that unfortunate country can be attributed directly to this tenacity.
There are those who contend that the ``chips'' created in each of the above cases are themselves the very cause of the hostility we are confronting. In other words, SDI spurs a Soviet strategic buildup; Nicaragua would evolve in a more moderated direction were it not for the contra threat; and Angola would expel its Cuban/Soviet supporters, if they were not vexed with the UNITA threat.
These may be valid intellectual positions, but are unproved by historical precedents.
Credit should be given where credit is due. The Reagan administration has tenaciously created positions of strength in situations that would otherwise be Western weaknesses.
Most observers will maintain that the stated goals of these various Reagan programs are unrealistic - and, indeed, domestic debates have centered on this kind of argument. SDI will not work, many technically qualified experts say. But portions of it may, others say. The contra cause cannot prevail, and has no political base. Western INF forces have been termed militarily insignificant, and at the same time provocative. Others claim they are highly significant strategically, and their withdrawal an invitation to European ``decoupling'' from its American defense linkage. UNITA has no chance of prevailing, and the mujahideen are bleeding for a hopeless cause.
These criticisms are possibly true - in whole or in part. But they also might be wrong - in whole or in part. And it is this spectrum of possibilities which renders the programs potent bargaining positions against the West's opponents.
Whether these chips are used - or allowed to languish in pursuit of maximalist goals - will tell us whether the essence of this administration is pragmatic or ideological.
The writer was a government official for two decades before becoming a consultant on international affairs.