ZAGREB, CROATIA — ASK many critics in the West to describe big-power diplomacy these days and the answers sound much the same: plodding, inept, directionless.
Bold initiatives are scarce as leaders of the United States, Europe, and Japan remain unsure of their role and generally weak domestically.
While some observers see this post-cold-war trend as catastrophic, others say Western foreign policy does not need to be inspired, because the times do not call for it.
``I think room for bold action only exists when your essential interests are at stake,'' says a senior European diplomat in Zagreb. ``As long as the [public desire] for change is not there, it's hard for leaders to make bold steps.''
A strategy of merely containing a foreign problem, such as the war in Bosnia, rather than solving it outright is not necessarily bad, he says. The West's containment strategy against the Soviet Union was a success. On the other hand, more aggressive action has been used in Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the spread of nuclear arms, and the promotion of free trade.
But critics say the current crop of weak leaders is not being aggressive enough to curb extreme nationalism and regional conflicts. That fight, they say, is as important as containing communism.
``There is no Kissinger, Brzezinski, or Bismark on the horizon,'' says a senior Croatian diplomat. ``There's a lack ... of long-term concepts or strategies. The idea is to survive until next Monday or the next election.''
Analysts say more minimalist foreign policy can be expected from the US and other major powers for several years.
``You have domestically beleaguered governments, you have a messy world in which there's not a lot of agreement, and you have a lot of countries with unclear definitions of what their vital interests are,'' explains Patrick Glynn, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
But regional instability will keep pressuring major powers to tackle the world's problems. Analysts predict several foreign-policy tempests will confront major powers in 1995.
* Russia: The former superpower remains the West's biggest foreign-policy concern, according to analysts. Many question Russian President Boris Yeltsin's commitment to democracy in the wake of the brutal assault on Chechnya. European governments have criticized the Kremlin, but President Clinton has kept relatively quiet.
Critics of the US also warn that Republican determination to resurrect the ``Star Wars'' missile defense system will only embolden Russian nationalists.
``The biggest issue for [the Clinton administration] is managing these problems with Russia. They want to keep Yeltsin stable,'' Mr. Glynn says.
* International peacekeeping: From Bosnia to Algeria, brutal ethnic conflicts and civil wars will likely persist. But the failure of the United Nations in Somalia and Rwanda and its humiliation in Bosnia will likely lead to fewer and fewer peacekeeping efforts.
``All of these governments have very little resolve to do anything about resolving conflict,'' says Prof. Dan Nelson, director of the International Studies program at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.
The White House's unwillingness to commit US troops outside the Western Hemisphere and new Republican proposals to hack at US financial contributions to UN peacekeeping have compounded the problem.
Jane Sharp of the Institute for Public Policy Research in London says the US withdrawal from its previous leadership role has been catastrophic - especially in Bosnia.
``I think the problem with Clinton is that his attention is so episodic,'' she says. ``The Americans are so weak that the Russians are calling the shots'' in places like Bosnia.
* NATO expansion: The US and Europe remain at odds over how quickly to bring East European nations into NATO's defense club. Leaders are strugging to set the pace of NATO expansion without making Russia feel cornered.
``The funny thing about NATO expansion is in late 1993, the West Europeans were all for it and the Americans were against [expansion], now it's reversed,'' Ms. Sharp says. ``This Chechnya thing might have been the perfect excuse to do it, but I didn't see anyone come forward.''
* China: The US and Japan, both with weak leadership, remain divided over how to turn this emerging economic and military giant into a congenial global player. On such issues as human rights and trade, Chinese officials have been able to deftly play Japan and the US against each other.
``Clinton may do something on the intellectual property rights ... [but] Japan has not been pushing hard on this. Tokyo isn't ready to bad-mouth Beijing,'' says Prof. Ching-Pin Lin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
The biggest factor keeping major powers from acting decisively in 1995 is the political fragility of their governments, analysts say.
In the US, Mr. Clinton's already-limited foreign policy will be hampered by struggles over his domestic agenda with the new GOP-controlled Congress. With little incentive to intervene in hot spots, Clinton has focused on other issues he has deemed important to global prosperity, such as free-trade agreements and containing the spread of nuclear weapons.
In Europe, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl faces a minuscule majority in parliament following 1994 elections, and John Major holds the prize as Britain's most unpopular prime minister in 50 years. French foreign policy promises to stay subdued at least for several months, as presidential elections this spring take center stage.
President Yeltsin remains beset by Russia's domestic problems, which he has approached in part by defying the West to placate Russian nationalists.
Japan's government, beset by a long economic downturn, remains unstable as leaders sort out a new political order after the end of four decades of one-party rule.
And China's leadership is largely focused on managing its explosive economic growth and preparing for a post-Deng Xiaopeng era.
Expecting a bold new order to emerge in a relatively stable world is too optimistic, argues the senior Western diplomat.
``You settle down with a situation and if it's not totally horrible you get used to it,'' he says. ``It would be nice to have a new world order, but human beings aren't like that.''