Acting from strength; Reagan confidence on foreign policy may pave way for summit
His hand apparently strengthened, President Reagan is now acting with greater confidence in several key areas of foreign affairs. Administration officials say that new unity in the Western alliance has been partly responsible for this. But it is also a matter, they say, of economic recovery, the President's improved ratings in the polls, and his success in securing a degree of bipartisan support on arms control and Central America policy.
There has been some floundering recently on Middle East policy, an uncertainty as to what, beyond limited moves, to do next. But when it comes to the two foreign policy issues that seem to matter most at the moment to the Americans - US-Soviet relations and Central America policy - President Reagan is said to be certain that he is on the right track.
The implications of this new found confidence remain to be seen. Its permanence remains to be tested. But it does seem to indicate that for some months to come, the President's hand in any possible negotiations with the Soviet Union has been strengthened.
Reagan's apparent gain in strength has led to speculation that he may now be in a position to move on to a summit meeting with Yuri Andropov, the Soviet leader, and thus dispel concern in many sectors of the American public that he is not serious about arms control or about improving relations with the Soviets.
As one administration official put it, ''We do see a lot of things coming together after 21/2 years - allied unity, military programs that have been authorized. They put us in a position to deal with the Soviets on the whole range of issues.''
But this official and others also cautioned that while Reagan has always been willing to hold a summit meeting with the Soviets when the time was right, it would require concrete results and careful preparation. And some officials hint that the prospect of progress in arms reductions might not be enough to bring a summit at this stage. More important, they suggest, would be signs of Soviet restraint in hot spots such as Central America, Angola, and the Middle East.
''Everyone can see the merits of a successful summit, politically speaking, and some in this administration think summits are good no matter what,'' an official said.
But officials also see a danger that holding a cs7.6summitcs8 could raise unrealistic expectations.
An interim solution to this problem, once suggegted by Indian Prime Minister IndiraP / mould be to hold a more limited meeting between the American and Soviet leaders. Should Mr. Andropov's health permit him to travel, the meeting could be done at next fall's United Nations General Assembly session in New York. President Reagan once suggested that he meet with then-President Leonid Brezhnev in New York, but the Soviets were cool to the idea. At any rate, Mr. Brezhnev's health did not permit him to go to the United Nations.
Despite all the ifs, ands, and buts, a senior State Department official predicts that in the end there will be a Reagan-Andropov meeting of some kind, and that it will probably take place before the end of Reagan's first term in office.
But anyone who expects Ronald Reagan to deviate widely from his original program of what might be called ''peace through strength'' may be in for a surprise.
Reagan and company have made tactical concessions to their Democratic political opponents in the two key areas of arms control and Central America. They have moderated their rhetoric, perhaps because Reagan's harsh denunciations of the Soviets was what bothered some foreign policy experts more than anything else. And they have shown signs of pragmatism in a number of areas (although pragmatism is not a popular word at the White House).
Democratic congressmen who spoke recently with Reagan about his repackaged proposal for the strategic arms reduction talks (START) said they were impressed with the President's grasp of detail on this complicated subject and his apparent confidence that he knew what he was doing. Some of them indicated, by way of contrast, that a meeting on the same subject with Reagan early in the administration had left them appalled by what appeared to be his lack of knowledge. So they see progress.
There are even a number of straws in the wind which point to a possible improvement in US-Soviet relations. One of them is the recent appointment of Jack Matlock, a veteran Sovietologist and professional diplomat, as senior presidential adviser on Soviet affairs. Mr. Matlock is described as tough and conservative. But he replaces Richard Pipes, a man considered by administration critics to be an unrelenting ideologue.
The administration's basic priority of holding up a stronger military shield, both in Europe and in Central America, has not changed. The emphasis on ''restoring the military balance'' should be evident from the President's repackaging of his START proposal and from Secretary of State George Shultz's moderate-sounding but tough June 15 statement on US-Soviet relations before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
An official said that future speeches, possibly including an appearance in Jackson, Miss., on June 20, President Reagan will ''lay on the line'' his concern that another Central American country not be lost to Marxist-Leninists.
On Central America, the administration, under congressional pressure, offers dialogue with the guerrillas, but only if it is focused on the issue of elections. The guerrillas have rejected that proposal.