The argument is very interesting that is developing over the president's trip to Europe: did he buy success with affability at the expense of principle? George Will observed on television over the weekend that there are "more models for diplomacy than Dale Carnegie"; others counter that the president's accommodation of his positions to European political and economic demands represents an exemplary exercise in statesmanship and diplomacy. We are interested--for today, anyway--only in a related and distorting aspect of all this, one that needs to be removed from the discussion altogether so that the good fight can go on. It is the awful, embarrassing and insecure "thing" Americans have about whether their presidents, on a first trip abroad, managed to prove to their European betters that they were not social and intellectual goons.
Can't we put an end to all this? It happens every time, and this episode is no exception. Already you may read the relieved and/or condescending reports: Mr. Reagan showed the Europeans he met with that he was not the "cowboy" of their vast anxieties. The only thing that is different from past rituals is the epithetic "cowboy." One or another American president over the past couple of decades has supposedly needed urgently to convince our European allies that he was not a fool, a political hack, a boor, an untutorted and unreadied rich kid. The president "did well," it will be reported here and abroad with an air of both relief and wonder. He used the right fork. He remembered his name. Fancy!
All right; that's a little extreme, but not by much. The question arises as to why this particular sham issue keeps coming up. The answer is a little complicated. Certainly there is a habit--a ploy, really-- in parts of the Western European political culture of patronizing the poor old American prez, whoever and whatever he might be, and of announcing quadrenially--if not more often than that--an urgent need to be "reassured." No doubt there is some serious motivation for this, something to do with nuclear dependency and American power and the fact that our chief executives frequently come to office as foreign policy unknowns. But it is surely overdone, and just as surely the greatest overdoers are we Americans ourselves.
You can probably get a better appreciation of this socially anxious and eager-to-pass-muster impulse in our national political life, in other words, by reading Mark Twain than by reading the NATO manual on who is allowed to push what button when. This agitated concern is not a question of policy, but rather an impediment to thinking clearly about policy, because we allow ourselves to get so hung-up on the bogus consideration of whether our presidents' forays abroad prove them suitable companions to a bunch of other presidents and prime ministers who are frankly generally no better or worse than they. The felt obligation affects presidential conduct, too. Understand: we are not recommending political arrogance or insensitivity on the issues, bless 'em. We are just saying that those issues, real questions of policy, get muddled up when you introduce the extra and wholly phoney issue of whether the president behaved agreeably or was acceptable to the political society in which he found himself or showed the world he wasn't a hick or a beast. To go on the way we have been is simultaneously to put down the president and to give him a free pass--Hey! He didn't do anything clumsy!. Shouldn't we expect something more of an American president, whether or not the folks abroad he is visiting do?