WASHINGTON — WHILE President Clinton has started off with a burst of action on domestic matters, he has been much more cautious on foreign affairs in the opening weeks of his administration.
Consider the first head of state Mr. Clinton is scheduled to meet as president: not Russia's Boris Yeltsin, or even Britain's John Major, but Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.
Canada is an important United States partner and the leaders will have substantive trade issues to talk about at their get-together, tentatively set for Feb. 5. Still, with all the hot spots around the world, the meeting seems something of a training step in summitry for the new US leader.
Clinton officials have promised some foreign policy initiatives as they get up to speed in the coming weeks. They include:
* A more-active policy toward events in the former Yugoslavia.
* Greater involvement with the United Nations and other multilateral institutions.
* Additional emphasis on problems that cut across borders, such as nuclear proliferation.
"We're in the post-cold-war era and have a comparable responsibility to establish new precepts, to establish a Clinton foreign policy that will endure and be effective," Secretary of State Warren Christopher said in a meeting with State Department employees Jan. 25.
That the Clinton White House has moved out more quickly on domestic matters is no surprise, of course. That's what candidate Clinton said he would do during the campaign.
Reaction to acute situations overseas has not been lacking. Thus the US has been heavily involved in trying to cobble together a solution to the Israeli deportee standoff in southern Lebanon.
One pro-active measure now being developed in Clinton's National Security Council is a thorough review of US foreign policy. A list of some 29 nations and issues is now under study, grouped into rough categories of importance.
The top tier reportedly consists of the Balkans, Haiti, Iraq, and Somalia. Second-tier subjects include the Middle East peace talks and trade issues. The third layer involves functional priorities: international environmental problems, human rights, UN peacekeeping, and others.
Some commentators have suggested that Clinton's first 100 days may be light on foreign- policy moves simply because the State Department agenda features problems that are readily solved. Thus William Hyland, former editor of Foreign Affairs quarterly, wrote recently that Clinton has three basic decisions to make: when to get out of Somalia, how to stay out of the Yugoslav war, and how to continue to contain Saddam Hussein.
CLINTON officials have responded that such a view is based on a rather narrow definition of American interests. The United States may be physically safer from attack than at any time in recent history, but analysts point out that inevitably US leaders are drawn into conflicts that touch on US interests in sensitive areas such as the Middle East and Europe.
"The experience of the 20th century is that American national interests are vitally affected by events around the world," says Robert Lieber, Georgetown University chair of government.
The Clinton administration may be more heavily involved with the UN than that of George Bush. Secretary Christopher's first trip was to New York for the presentation of UN Ambassador Madeline Albright.
"That symbolism tells you a lot," argues John Bolton, an assistant secretary of state under President Bush who is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
Christopher has said the US would support an expansion of the UN Security Council to include permanent seats for Japan and Germany. Mr. Bolton says that is a bad idea, not because Japan and Germany do not deserve it, but because opening up the issue of the Council's size opens up a Pandora's box.
Other countries from Brazil to Nigeria have indicated that they, too, want a permanent Security Council seat. Considering the makeup of the General Assembly, it would be hard to ignore third-world demands.
During the campaign, Clinton's differences with Bush on foreign policy were not large, compared to the Gulf on domestic priorities. Alan Tonelson, research director of the Economic Strategy Institute, says he believes that Clinton buys into elitist foreign-policy principles that are not supported by the US public.
Talk of an activist Yugoslav policy, for instance, bothers Mr. Tonelson. "I see little out there in terms of international turmoil that would merit significant use of American resources," he says.