Now that we are beginning to get some idea of Ronald Reagan's foreign policy, far and away the most interesting question is not how much he knows about it. (Understandably, he doesn't know very much.)
The interesting question is whether he knows enough to know how much he doesn't know.
The Reagan people are hustling around with what can only be described as the most syrupy reassurances: That as president, Reagan would listen to a full, rich mix of counselors. . . that he would delegate authority to a wide variety of men and women of stature and large vision and deep knowledge . . . that he has always held himself open to contrary views.
"Watch what he does, not what he says" -- that's almost literally the offical line.
Well, fine. Except that there's no sure way to prove whether what Reagan says has any relation to what he would do as president other than to elect him, which is a lot to be asked to do simply as a test.
Short of that, the only available alternative for thoughtful voters is to operate on the assumption, however tentative, what you'll get with Ronald Reagan is what you see.
And when you piece it all together, what you see first is an amiable, decent, intelligent, concerned citizen -- but also a figure, on closer inspection, almost wholly out of touch with the context and content of current events. What you'll get, or at least what the available record suggest, is a sort of Rip Van Reagan emerging sleeply out of some California Catskills with a word view and a sense of what's needed to set things right that seem wonderfully suited for the early 1950's.
The explosion of the Third World as an infinitely diverse and turbulent force, the inevitable decline of this country's infulence on the Atlantic alliance as a logical consequence of the resurgence of its European partners, the loss of unquestioned American nuclear superiority, the fundamentally altered but no less precarious state of the Mideast, the strategic potential in the new U.S. relationship with China, the clamouous and conflicting demands on this country's resources -- all this and more seem to be unaccounted for in the Reagan scheme of things.
What counts with Reagan is that the communists are coming, and not necessary only the Soviets, but the mainland Chinese as well: "Both are communists and both want to take over the world." From Iran to Nicaragua, in every internal upheaval, Reagan sees a communist hand. There is no allowance for nationalistic, home-grown impulses, and no recourses for the United States but to draw the line, to massively increase defense spending, to restore our respect.
This means, among other things, nuclear weapons upgrading. It would mean defense spending of such proportions and duration that it could not be entirely fulfilled in Reagan's presidency -- never mind the economic and social consequences. The aim is a reaffirmation of American will. But the effect might just as easily be a demonstration of American infirmity -- a notice to the world that at least for the early 1980s the United States will be shut down for repairs.
That's a part of what's troubling about Reagan's approach. It's excessive, and because it's excessive, it invites an excessive response. If supposed Soviet superiority is unacceptable to Reagan, what makes him think American superiority would be acceptable for long to the Soviets?
Much of the rest of what is troubling about the Reagan approach to the world has to do with reality. He would seek to restore somehow the old U.S. wconnection with Taiwan -- at what cost to the new connection with Peking, he doesn't say. Perhaps he sees no gain for American interests in a People's Republic of China counterpoised against the Soviets.
He would scuttle SALT II in favor of negotiating real arms reductions with the Soviets, even through that's been tried by Jimmy Carter with dismal results. He would deploy the neutron bomb in Europe, even through the Europeans have made it clear that they would accept it only hand-in-hand with a genuine effort to pursue SALT II and some measure of detente.
He talks of an anti-soviet defense alliance between Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United States in a manner reminisecent of the Eisenhower Doctrine and the long-gone Baghdad Pact -- in a way that suggest he thinks the Palestinian issue is of no real consequence to the Arab world.
Reagan's preoccupation with the Soviet menace may not be misplaced -- at least that's arguable. That he seems to be largely surrounded by the like-minded advisers doesn't necessarily make him misguided -- that's not the point, The point is that Ronald Reagan doesn't act or sound as if he knows enough about the world to know what he doesn't know.