When Congress defeated further funding for the Nicaraguan Contras, the post-Reagan era in U.S. foreign policy began. The President can no longer prevail on such a controversial matter of war and peace. But this is not the only indication of a new age. In fact, controversy over Central America deviates from an unusual degree of comity in U.S. foreign policy.
Nicaragua bedevils debate because America has long been divided over two questions: Does the Sandinista regime pose a critical threat to its neighbors? And are the American people willing to commit military forces to overthrow it? The answer to the first question is unclear. But the answer to the second is a decisive no.
Broader issues of U.S. policy in the region also have not been resolved. Unless there is a decisive turn of events, Nicaragua will figure in this fall's U.S. election campaign. Democrats will be charged with abandoning the "freedom fighters" and condoning the spread of communism. They will counter that their approach is more likely to transform the Sandinista regime, and at lower cost, than the Republicans' alternative.
Yet this one issue virtually defines the differences between the parties on major U.S. foreign-policy interests. Only one other key issue--trade--is being widely contended in the presidential contest, and it is more about the conduct of the U.S. economy than about foreign relations. Also, the Administration trumpets free trade but quietly acts to change the terms of bargaining with U.S. trading partners.
On other central elements of U.S. foreign policy there is remarkably little disagreement across party lines, at least among Republicans and Democrats who either dominate Congress or have a chance of being nominated for President. Extreme views in both parties fail to resonate. The GOP right believes that President Reagan has abandoned most of its agenda. This causes apoplexy as Democrats and moderate Republicans ensure that the Senate cannot reject the President's Euromissile treaty with the Soviet "evil empire."
For their part, most Democrats finally realize that the White House is not theirs by right, and that it is just a series of accidents that have given Republicans the presidency for 16 of the past 20 years. Political hunger helps to produce pragmatism. Four years ago the Democratic caucuses in Iowa were dominated by the nuclear-freeze movement. This year the Iowa Stop the Arms Race Political Action Committee demanded that candidates meet new tests of fealty to arms control, but the effort fizzled.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State George P. Shultz last week delivered an upbeat speech on U.S.-Soviet relations that could have been given by a 1970s apostle of detente or by any of this year's serious presidential contenders. Shultz's speech was perhaps most remarkable for failing to cause a political stir.
These presidential candidates agree on many points and tend to dispute the "how" rather than the "what." All support the Euromissile treaty and further progress in arms control, and all want to test Soviet intentions and actions. They divide over Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, but the budget squeeze has reduced both its appeal and the urgency of opposing it.
All the candidates support human rights, an active U.S. role in Middle East peacemaking, aid for the moujahedeen in Afghanistan and protection of U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf--even though some doubt the wisdom of reflagging Kuwaiti tankers. America's alliances remain important, though each candidate wants to shift more of the burden to Europe and Japan. Some liberal Democrats favor reducing U.S. commitments abroad, but none of the candidates threaten to bring home troops from Europe or the fleet from the Pacific.
It is no accident that relative lack of partisan bickering over foreign policy reflects changes in the policies of the latter-day Ronald Reagan, beginning with arms control. In fact, the President is himself presiding over the transition to the post-Reagan era. Most of the ideologues have been replaced by pragmatic officials. Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci, for example, is not resisting inevitable cuts in the military budget but instead is trying to make them in a rational way. And he is gradually drawing down U.S. naval forces in the Persian Gulf, thereby reducing the controversy over their exposure to risk.
The drift of U.S. foreign policy toward the political center does not mean that Reagan is being misled by subordinates. Ascribe it instead to the notion that any President, however determined to impose his prejudices on policy, eventually is influenced by the facts. In his second term Reagan is assuming his place among other post-war Presidents in recognizing the realities of life in a difficult world.
No doubt major debates will take place about the U.S. role in times of changing economic, political and military power. But, except for Nicaragua, the conduct of U.S. foreign policy has not been so free of strife since before the Vietnam War. Both the next President and the nation will benefit.