A brief memoir: a few days after Jimmy Carter announced for president in 1974, I called him up -- an aide named Jurdan, something like that, got him out of a shower in San Francisco -- to ask whether a mere ex-governor could handle international affairs. He said sure and I went on to agree that the next president needn't be, and perhaps shouldn't be, a foreign policy expert, and suggested that he could rebuild foreign policy first at home.
In a superficial sense, this was wrong. Many of Carter's frustrations have arisen from his innocence and inexperience and the ways he sought to compensate. But in a deeper sense, it was perhaps wronger. The expectation that Carter would solidify a domestic base has not been fulfilled. He has neither assembled a workable domestic consensus for a liberal policy nor assuaged widespread security anxieties nor gotten on top of the policy-making process in Washington.
This brings us to Ronald Reagan, who, after the Illinois primary, must be accepted as possibly the next helmsman of American foreign policy. Once again, the question is whether an ex-governor with no national security experience can do the job.
Frankly, I have never been one of Reagan's fans. I have always identified him with the hard-core right: a jingoistic anti-communist carelessly offering simplistic military-oriented solutions to complex global problems. He is not subtle. He is not cool.
None of this is comforting. Yet in view of what has happened since 1976, it would seem necessary to ask if Reagan's conservative boosterism promises to be any less effective or reliable a guide to policy than the liberal guild that was so prominent in Carter's baggage in the last campaign. I say this not because I think one is more cynical and opportunistic than the other. But Carter's initial approach did not produce results that either the public or -- ultimately -- he himself found acceptable, and so he reversed field, especially on the critical Soviet issue.
What results would a hard-line Reagan approach produce? How would he react if the results were disappointing? If we have learned anything in the last four years, it should have been to demand that our leaders respect the jagged orneriness of events and not simply follow the seamless contours of their own ideologies and hopes.
For just this reason, it's fine by me that Reagan was, as reported, generally bland and unspecific in his "major" foreign policy address in Chicago this week. That beats telling us how many troops he's going to pull out of an allied country he has neither consulted nor been briefed on. The details come later. And if, as Lou Cannon reported, the speech's "new conciliatory tone . . . was designed to show that he is not a warmonger," that's fine, too. That's just what he needs to show.
But the Chicago speech was more interesting for the "broad requirements" of foreign policy that Reagan listed. His first was "a clear vision of, and belief in, America's future," by which he means faith in American capitalism as the engine of our progress and as a potential model for others.' A conservative cliche? Perhaps. But it's worth more than a liberal cliche in response. Not many Democratic hearts may go pitter-patter for Reagan's eminently Republican vision. But though it's arguable, it's not outrageous. There's something to be said for cheering one's system on -- and making it work better. The relationship of free enterprise to political liberty is not accidental. Let's hear more.
Reagan's second foreign-policy "requirement" is a strong economy, which he would achieve by unleashing free enterprise. I leave the heavy economic lifting to others. But surely, given the debris around us, it makes sense to ask why, say, Germany and Japan can import far more of their oil and yet not suffer nearly as much inflation. And so on. Carter in 1976 suggested than an ethical or social regeneration was the proper base for rebuilding foreign policy. Reagan suggests economic regeneration. Who disagrees?
If Reagan really wants to convince people that he's not a warmonger, then he's right to keep his third priority -- a strong defense, "adequate military power" -- third. He asserts that his positions on foreign and defense policy are generally closer to the majority view in Congress than Carter's are. Carter, to be sure, has been moving right, especially since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But whatever Reagan would do in national security, he does not labor under Carter's burden of having to prove he's not soft.
I am not simply trying here to be "fair" to Ronald Reagan. I am trying to figure out who can best take us where we want and ought to go in the world. People who dismissed Reagan out of hand in the past cannot avoid taking a second look now.