It is once again the season for summing up, for listing the past year's newsmakers, rating the top news stories and groping for clues to what, God save us, lies ahead. Tradition requires it--never mind intellectual reward. But the practice this year actually reveals a significant pattern to international events--and the role of the United States.
The usual annual exercise in instant history suggests an unusually coherent theme for 1982: America the Ineffectual.
From the Falklands to Lebanon to Poland, from Central America to the economic and financial councils of the Western industrialized world, from the region of the Persian Gulf to the chanceries of Europe-- almost everywhere you look--the nation that lays claim to leadership of the Free World has been a bit player, incapable of bringing decisive influence to bear.
You have only to recall the newscasts and the headlines: Argentina (the Reagan administration's new, best Latin friend) ignores Reagan's plea, invades Falklands; Britain's full-force military reconquest is unchecked by an American mediation effort. Israel works its will on Lebanon and the West Bank, indifferent to U.S. entreaties for restraint.
Soviet repression of Poland is undiminished by U.S. sanctions. America backs down on efforts to choke off European participation in the natural gas pipeline from Siberia, while opening its granaries wide to the Soviets.
The newsmakers were Menachem Begin (and his defense minister, Ariel Sharon), the Argentine junta and Margaret Thatcher, the Soviet leadership, the rebels in El Salvador, the war leaders in Iran and Iraq and the powers-that-be in Peking.
Now you can credit all this to natural forces beyond U.S. control. Or you can take the point of the administration that the military establishment it inherited is inferior to a degree that paralyzes diplomacy, so that the promised resurgence of U.S. power and prestige must necessarily take time.
Or you can accept a second administration argument: that a fractious Congress has recklessly undercut the Reagan foreign policy in dangerous ways by denying funds for MX production, by increasing American aid to Israel, by not passing a proper foreign aid appropriations bill.
But if you are a foreign leader, taking the measure of the United States, our internal scapegoating is less interesting than the impression of a United States sadly lacking in either the wit or the will to lead.
This takes us to the obligatory, year-end Historic View. Leaving aside the wit, does the United States, based on the performance of Congress, any longer have the will?
This year's events have raised disturbing doubts. It was pure domestic politics that brought the lifting of the grain embargo, and added to the pressure to lift the gas pipeline sanctions as well. Americans flinched at the first thought of U.S. involvement, even as mediator, in the Falklands. There was a bipartisan cry of alarm at the landing of U.S. Marines to join French and Italian peacekeepers in Lebanon.
Only a last-minute compromise prevented an actual cut in U.S. force levels in Europe. The congressional cleaver applied to foreign aid, by resort to a continuing resolution at no more than last year's levels, wreaked havoc with an administration aid design that was intended, for better or worse, to advance U.S. interests in carefully selected trouble spots.
Undersecretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger recently returned from a world tour with an unsettling estimate of how others see us on just this score. The burden of his report was that he had encountered a common concern: "How can we be sure that Uncle Sam is going to be there when we need him?"
It wasn't, he reported, so much a collapse of confidence. That had already set in over a decade of Vietnam and Watergate, the loss of Iran, the hostage crisis. It was the failure, so far, of the administration's efforts to rebuild confidence--a failure made doubly dangerous by the original promise, and subsequent unsuccessful efforts.
So the clues from 1982 for 1983 come down, really, to questions. Assuming a certain measure of effective management in the executive branch, how much political capital is Ronald Reagan prepared to invest in regaining the presidential command over foreign policy that has been surrendered, however inadvertently, to Congress?
How well, in other words, will he be able to restore confidence around the world that somebody is in charge of a consistent, comprehensible foreign policy?