"The president has turned the corner on foreign policy" is a comment I have heard from two exultant White House aides in the past couple of days. Though I am myself skeptical, the inner logic of that view bears detailed reporting. The more so as what has actually happened has been obscured by a press hullabaloo about administration inconsistency on Africa and arms control.
Analysis begins with the acute foreign-policy bind the president found himself in only last month. At the point the Russians seemed to be treating Carter and the United States with studied disdain.
They had just meted out a maximum sentence to the dissident scientist Yuri Orlov. They had given quick support, in circumstances that suggested advance knowledge, to a pro-communist coup in Afghanistan.
In Africa they and their Cuban allies seemed to be on a minor rampage. They had entrenched themselves in Angola and were moving to do the same in Ethiopia. They posed a threat to Zaire and possibly, in a way highly embarrassing to the United States, in Rhodesia.
This country's allies in Europe and the Middle East were shaken by what seemed to be American passivity. Communist China, though increasingly vying with Russia in North Korea and Southeast Asia, was acting entirely on its own.
In the United States, foreign-policy troubles joined with chopping and changing on domestic policy to give the feeling that Carter was a weak and hesitant president unable to stand up to the Russians. In the Senate particularly, the impression grew that the administration was being taken to the cleaners by the Soviets in the arms control talks.
A drumfire of activities has changed that picture in the past in the past few weeks. First, the president's special adviser on national security, Zbigniew Brzezinski, completed a visit to Communist China that placed emphasis on strategic cooperation between the two countries. Then American support for French, Belgian and Moroccan operations in Zaire combined with strong statements made by the president to the NATO summit meeting in public and to Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko in private to warn the Russians against new African adventures.
Finally there were new developments on arms control. At present the negotiations have come to center on the thorny problem of limiting new types of land-based missiles.
The United States had presented two proposals - one for no new types, the other allowing each country a single new weapon - that feature very tight controls and last for only three years. That way, if the Russians continued with their buildup, the United States could go forward to its next big project; a mobile missile (the MX), which will take five years to develop.
Two weeks ago Gromyko came in with a third proposal barring all new types for the next eight years. The duration would have blocked the MX and - since the control features were lose - allowed the Russians to go forward with their program. President Carter rejected the Gromyko proposal and asked the Russians to choose between the two already on the table.
But he made it cleat he wanted negotiations to continue. He personally rejected with vehemence a newspaper headline saying the administration had put a "freeze" on negotiations. Defense Secretary Brown subsequently said the administration position remained flexible. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance has a tentative agreement with Gromyko to resume negotiations somewhere in Europe later this month.
The consequences of all this are not certain. But the Europeans and other allies are probably more confident in U.S. willingness to block Russia. China is cooperating more closely with Washington. It even appears that Peking and Tokyo will get together on a peace and security treaty opposed by the Russians. It would be surprising if the heavyweights in the Senate were not more impressed by the president's ability to stand up to the Russians.
The true unknown is Moscow. Presumably the Russians will not moderate their stance on the dissidents. But they are apt to tread more warily in Africa, and probably they will resume the arms-controls talks.
If so, the past two weeks will have been a plus. Not a turning point, though. That will have to wait for an administration showing that it can organize - without rhetorical overkill and abundant signs of discord - a coherent plan for dealing with that very hard problem, the Soviet Union.