President-elect George Bush offered a little taste of his foreign-policy style after his victory when he was asked about the announced pause in Soviet military withdrawal from Afghanistan. He declined to make an explicit linkage of the Afghan question to other issues lying between the Soviet Union and the United States, but he did say a break in withdrawal, which he didn't expect anyway, would "complicate" things, and then he moved on.
His little statement was no big deal, but it served the requirements of the day. These were: 1) to put Moscow on notice that he's watching to see whether it will be as good as its Geneva word and 2) to inform the rest of us that he is not in the grip of the grim mood currently rising on the American right as it contemplates, with some I-told-you-so satisfaction, that the Soviets are playing hardball in Afghanistan.This may be the way it's going to be for the next four years, or the next 40. At any given moment there will be trouble somewhere, but the question for policy-makers will be not how to respond to a large dramatic crisis, which creates a dynamic of its own, but how to deal with the trouble in a way that keeps a perspective on other matters.
I would venture a further step: perhaps - if we're lucky - the heroic age in foreign policy is over, the age whose constant theme was the contest of wills between the great powers, whose defining peril was the raw danger of nuclear war.
Perhaps we are entering a bureaucratic age in which the great powers, while presumably not neglecting the immense responsibilities their nuclear stewardship of the planet places upon them, turn to a joint management or subordination of their rivalries and to a greater concern for the quality of life in their home countries and elsewhere in the world.
Foreign policy on the Bush watch, then, involves a deceptively simple sort of transition.
In form, it is a minimal transition to a new administration with the same general line of "peace through strength," the same political party and at the top the same faces, starting with the president-elect and his designated secretary of state, former Treasury Secretary James Baker. These factors work against the probing policy review and the sweeping personnel renewal often associated with transitions.
In content, nonetheless, this is a potentially huge transition, one moving the country away from a Soviet-based foreign policy toward a policy based in the first instance on economic and other domestic considerations like drugs and in the second instance on global issues of poverty, development and the environment.
I don't say it's certain to work out well. Bush's capacity for leadership, as distinguished from his old-shoe ease with the materials of foreign policy, remains to be demonstrated.
Ideas drove the Reagan policy - ideas of freedom and America's place in the world. Bush knows the words to these ideas but not the music. New political facts may drive his policy. These include the global political opportunities created by Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev and the financial pressures generated by Reagan's headlong pursuit of his ideas. Hang on.