The 20th century, now drawing to a close, has confronted the United States with four crucial turning points in defining its world role, all of them in the aftermath of wars, hot or cold.
The first came at the century's start in the euphoric aftermath of the lopsided war with Spain. We took over Puerto Rico and the Philippines and made Cuba independent in a manner of speaking. Theodore Roosevelt ''took Panama'' (his words) so he could build a canal, and embarked on a period of intervention in Latin America that has not yet ended. He also won the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize for settling the Russo-Japanese War.
The second came after the end of World War I, when the US repudiated the League of Nations and followed Warren Harding in a nostalgic search for a return to normalcy.
The third came after World War II, when US leadership was crucial in establishing the United Nations. Secretary of State George C. Marshall got the 1953 Nobel Peace Prize for his plan that rebuilt Western Europe. George Kennan's containment policy, formulated in 1946, provided the framework that won the cold war more than 40 years later.
Now the US is at the fourth crossroads. In the aftermath of the cold war, we are looking more like the country that abdicated leadership after World War I than the country that exercised it after World War II.
Russia in transition
The UN is in disrepute and has been forced near bankruptcy by US failure to pay its dues and assessments. Both Democratic and Republican Congresses have refused to appropriate the money. One of the complaints about the UN is that it has a large, unwieldy, and expensive bureaucracy that sometimes engages in cockeyed activities. This is quite true; but falling into financial arrears is not the way to gain influence.
Russia today is at an even more crucial turning point than the US. It can either build a market economy in a political democracy, or it can lapse into some form of socialist authoritarianism. In the first case, it can become a source of strength and stability in the world; in the second, a source of weakness, disruption, and danger.
There was much the same choice in Western Europe after World War II. At that time, Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, then the Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, warned his colleagues that there was no guarantee the Marshall Plan would work, but argued that we ought at least to give it a try.
Today the American debate is dominated by complaints about Russian behavior and about the US foreign-aid bureaucracy. The Russians are doing a good many things wrong, and foreign aid is seriously distorted. But the Russians are doing some things right. A great deal of foreign aid worldwide ought simply to be ended. That would help restore a sense of proportion to what is important, namely, Russia. Even with our help, the Russians may not make a successful transition, but they are more likely to be successful with our help than without it. And if the effort fails, we will at least have tried.
Another major distortion of foreign-policy priorities is Cuba, which has been elevated to a threat when in fact it is an irrelevance to larger American interests. The Clinton White House is myopic about this, but the Republican presidential candidates are worse. Among other Cuba-bashing measures, the front-runner, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, wanted to prevent President Fidel Castro from attending the UN gathering last week. Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, campaigning against Senator Dole, said that the only reason to admit Mr. Castro should be ''to put him in prison or to hang him.'' Never mind that the UN Headquarters Agreement obliges the US to admit any foreign official attending UN meetings. Gramm doesn't have much influence in the Senate, so what he says can be overlooked. But for Dole, the majority leader, to advocate such a gross breach of our international obligations is irresponsible.
Dole, Gramm, and others no doubt think they are taking the popular side of difficult issues, whether it's UN dues, or aid to Russia, or Cuba. President Clinton is not immune to this temptation to follow the polls. But following the polls is not leadership. Leadership is shaping and influencing the polls. Theodore Roosevelt put it this way: ''I simply made up my mind what they [the people] ought to think, and then did my best to get them to think it.'' Teddy had his faults, but he left some good advice.