Three Foreign-Policy Musts for Clinton

By , Helena Cobban is with Search for Common Ground in Washington. The views in her columns are her own.

WASHINGTON has been abuzz with the "Who?" of the next administration's foreign-policy decisionmaking. Just as important, but less discussed, are questions of "What?" "Where to?" and "With what international allies?"

The election of a new president gives Americans an opportunity to demand the new administration set significant new priorities - such as has not occurred here since the end of World War II. The need for a broad review of foreign-policy priorities has been evident since Soviet power collapsed in 1989. No review has taken place. But in years to come, few will forgive the Clinton administration if it does not engage, early, in this review.

United States power can't be all things to all people, world-wide. It couldn't in the late 1940s (when we were the world's healthiest economic power), and it can't today. But nor is it nothing. Hence: What must US power achieve in years ahead? What should it achieve? What doesn't matter so much today?

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In the late 1940s, Truman's foreign-policy team quickly established two main global priorities: contain the spread of Soviet communism, and stabilize Western Europe's war-ravaged societies. Having zeroed in on these issues, the administration set about creating the institutions needed to address them.

One of the institutions was the Policy Planning Staff, set up by Secretary of State John Marshall in 1947, with the accomplished Russian specialist George Kennan at its head. According to Mr. Kennan's memoirs, he was told to assemble his staff, review the whole complex problem of European recovery, and present his recommendations - all in less than two weeks!

Small wonder the major advice General Marshall gave Kennan was, "Avoid trivia!" This advice rings down the decades, an apt motto for the type of foreign-policy decisions needed at today's similarly critical crossroads in history. (In James Baker III's State Department, the policy planning head worked on tiny details of current policy.)

What are the foreign-policy "must-do's" at present? My choices would be pared to three:

1) Ensure the stability and economic recovery of the former Soviet Union. This is similar to Marshall's priority in Europe, 45 years ago. But there are differences. In Marshall's Europe, US and allied troops controlled the terrain. The US could afford to wholly underwrite European recovery - a recovery pursued with a lurking Soviet threat.

How can stability be ensured in the former Soviet lands, before revanchism there looses a new, less predictable nuclear threat on the world? Bill Clinton's Kennan must wrestle hard with this one.

2) Ensure the long-term strength of mechanisms for world governance. The United Nations is the place to start, but needs reform. Here (unlike in health care) our policy should be "Pay and play." Then, how does the UN fit in with the Group of Seven, NATO, GATT, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank? Is there a better way to combine the functions of these agencies, to ensure effective international coordination?

3) Ensure the continuing economic vitality of the US. This is a priority for Americans. It is also a key component of world order. For the US is still the world's largest market. Massive collapse here would drag down everyone's economy, as well as kiss good-bye hopes for world order in the 21st century.

To his credit, President-elect Clinton has signaled commitment to this last priority by forming an Economic Security Council. But there's no word yet on the first two priorities.

What about everything else? Namely, those heart-rending situations around the world where many Americans would like our nation to be more involved? The news from Somalia, Bosnia, Lebanon, or Angola is terrible to ponder. However, few of these are situations the US, on its own, can resolve. All need much stronger mechanisms of international coordination than currently exist. Hence, the priority placed on number 2 above.

The Clinton administration needs to make broad foreign-policy decisions, and we need to see them doing it. As for the "Who": Maybe George Kennan could head the process? He has written some very insightful articles recently.

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