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What Americans want in foreign policy

What do Americans want in their country's foreign policies?

In a year since leaving government service, I have been speaking to groups and individuals around the country and seeking an answer to that question.

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Obviously, there are many Americans and many views. There are strong advocates of emphases on arms control, human rights, economic aid, population programs, environmental concerns, and many more.

Clearly, also, the foreign policies of the Carter years were not popular with many people, even though, in the eyes of those who worked with that administration, there were many solid accomplishments.

While groups interested in foreign policy scarcely represent a cross section or scientific sampling, they do constitute those who take an active and informed interest in United States policies. Their views may well reflect a wider consensus.

The first impression from the year's experience is that the perception of policies is, perhaps, more important than the policies. And the perception of policies depends in large measure on how they seem to fit with one or more of four basic American concerns.

1. We must be number one. There is the strong belief that when the US had superior military power, it could both foresee and control events. Setbacks of the '50s, such as Hungary, the nationalization of the Suez Canal, the Iraqi revolution, are forgotten in the feeling that we should ''regain'' our ability to foresee challenges to our interests, or to change circumstances where they are adverse. Policies which seem to accept our limitations, or to shackle our means of influencing events are clearly unpopular.

2. We are special. Not without justification, our people feel that we have made unique contributions to the world in our political philosophy, our democracy, our generosity. We are frustrated when others appear to consider us as only one among many, fail to accept our leadership or follow our example, or, what is worse, equate us with the Soviet Union. Policies which seem to accept this fact are unpopular. It is difficult for us as a people to understand that others often see us differently than we see ourselves. It is much more acceptable to blame our difficulties on the propaganda success of our adversaries or on our own failure to tell our story.

3. Every problem has a solution. We are impatient. We are uncomfortable with complexities, restless with prolonged and unresolved issues. When a major part of an issue is resolved, such as at Camp David, we are critical because all has not been resolved. To speak of managing a problem or limiting damage may be good diplomacy, but in many American eyes, it is avoiding the issue. We are fascinated with the quick military option; we prefer High Noon to a chess game. The recollection of Mayaguez is more popular than that of the freeing of the Iranian hostages. Policies which take the long option risk rejection; rhetoric suggesting the quick option is popular.

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4. The Soviets should be our primary concern. We see the world in terms of friendships. We judge those friendships in large measure by the attitudes others assume toward the Soviet Union and international communism. Two of the most common reasons cited to me for the lack of confidence in President Carter were his statements suggesting that we were now free of the inordinate fear of communism and his comments, after Afghanistan, that he was changing his opinion of the Russians. The Carter policies on human rights were criticized, not out of sympathy for harsh regimes but because they seemed more critical of anticommunist friends than of the Soviet Union. India, although the world's largest democracy, is clearly unpopular in this country, largely because of its perceived attitude toward the Soviet Union.

These basic sentiments present any policymaker with a dilemma, because the world is not prepared fully to accept our premises. We never have had a capacity totally to foresee and control events; to suggest that we did or should seems to many abroad presumptuous. To expect acceptance on our terms ignores the fact that others see us in the light of our attitude toward their problems: the Arabs judge us on our view toward Israel, the Africans on our view toward South Africa , the Europeans on how we see nuclear war. To look for quick and sometimes violent solutions is to ignore the benefits of patient diplomacy and the risks of precipitate action.

There is little argument that the Soviets represent the major threat to us, militarily. The argument is whether we meet that threat by a total concentration on the Soviets and on others' attitudes toward them or on the conditions in other countries which they exploit.

There are variations in attitudes by region, by race, by background. Whatever these variations, however, whatever policies the United States pursues, whether radical, or imaginative, or cautious, must, to be acceptable, be expressed in ways which do not too strongly challenge our pride, our optimism, our impatience , and our basic suspicions of the Soviet Union.