Clinton's Top Priority: Rebuilding America

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WHAT is the Clinton administration's policy toward Japan? Toward China? Or, for that matter, toward the Shetlands or the Maldives?

Asian capitals ask whether the new team in the White House will be as tough on trade and on human rights as their boss's campaign rhetoric had led them to believe.

Japan fears the new administration's stance on trade, while Beijing tries to figure out whether most-favored-nation trade privileges will be explicitly linked to China's human rights record. Other parts of the world have other concerns.

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I have no crystal ball. But I sense a potential conflict between President Clinton's insistence on putting America's own economic house in order and his upholding of human rights, whether in China, Somalia, or any of the hot spots around the globe.

The United States cannot be strong in the world unless it becomes strong at home. That means calling on Americans for personal sacrifices in order to reduce the federal deficit and the trade deficit, to rebuild the nation's decaying road-and-rail infrastructure, to provide a new impetus for education and health care. Only the president can articulate the vision required to accomplish these tasks, many of which are unglamorous. The inaugural address pointed the way, but a hard slog lies ahead.

Meanwhile, the world's needs will not wait. Somalia and Bosnia are only the most conspicuous examples of conflicts and wants that daily grow more desperate. Surely the rich and privileged of this world - and for all their problems, Americans remain privileged and rich - have the duty to heed the cries for help that assail them from every side.

To so many of the world's deprived, whether politically or economically, America remains the city set on a hill, the light destined to be seen from afar. To stop one's ears and avert one's eyes would be to surrender an essential part of what makes Americans Americans. But the new president must resolutely set an order of priorities, and then stick to it, however angry the criticisms.

In the days when the Soviet Union was the evil empire, the cold war took care of priorities. The end of the cold war calls for a different approach. But priorities there must be, if America and its allies are to avoid intervening in one country for purely humanitarian reasons, in another country to stop wanton killings and a breakdown of law and order, and in still another country for traditional concerns over national interests.

This is a hard thing to say, but I would hope Clinton follows through on his initial impulse and makes the rebuilding of America absolutely his top priority. It is tempting to look out at a world in disarray and to reason how, with a little extra effort here, a little additional outlay there, America could spell the difference between absolute misery - political, social or economic - and a bit more hope.

In a situation where the US remains the world's single most powerful country but no longer has overwhelming political or economic might, it is equally tempting to call on allies and friends to help provide the extra wherewithal Washington finds that by itself it can no longer afford.

I don't say the new president should never succumb to these twin temptations. But he must avoid squandering the nation's diminished combination of moral authority and physical means of enforcement. During the transition, the president-elect supported the foreign policy of his predecessor. Today, he is his own boss, and one can only hope he will choose sparingly among the courses of action proposed by well-intentioned advocates.

More than 30 years ago, the Kennedy administration made a fateful decision to intervene in Laos. A diplomat who followed closely the stages of that intervention told me how difficult it was for Washington to accept that, as powerful as the US was, by making one set of decisions it closed the door to other decisions. Even after selecting option A, this diplomat said, time and again Washington continued to behave as though options B and C still remained open, although this was no longer the case.

For Clinton to make his first priority the rebuilding of America is not to turn his back on the rest of mankind. It is to give America the means to make a more effective contribution to an interdependent world.

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