WASHINGTON — When two-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan traveled to Constantinople in 1906, a friendly official at the American embassy wished him a pleasant journey in the Balkans.
"What are the Balkans?" the future secretary of state asked.
After four years of savage conflict between Muslims, Croats, and Serbs, most Americans now know where the Balkans are. Even so, the story, recounted recently by British diplomatic writer Jonathan Clarke, stands as an apt metaphor for an America that has often been uninterested in and largely uniformed about the world beyond its borders.
The phenomenon is not new in American history, especially after major wars, including the just concluded cold war. As foreign threats recede, isolationism tends to surface.
But as the United States approaches its second post-cold-war election, the primacy of domestic over foreign concerns, the absence of clear threats from abroad (such as the Soviet aggression during the cold war), and the inability of leaders in Washington to articulate clear foreign-policy goals have combined to create one of the most uncertain periods in American diplomacy.
"It's more difficult to articulate and implement a coherent foreign policy now than at any time in recent history," says John Rielly, president of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. "This is something that's going to complicate life for the next president, whether it's Clinton or Dole."
The difficulties of making foreign policy are reflected in the Balkans, where Americans, conflicted over whether and how to help stop the fighting in Bosnia, are torn between George Washington's advice to avoid foreign engagements and Woodrow Wilson's to make the world safe for democracy.
They are reflected in the increased effort required by post-cold-war presidents to bring Congress and the public along once foreign-policy decisions are made.
And they are reflected in what many diplomatic analysts believe is the diminishing state of readiness on the part of the United States to deal with a world that continues to pose significant dangers to its interests.
"The reversion to semi-isolationism has left the US less prepared to deal with potential crises in places like Russia and China diplomatically, militarily, and psychologically," says American Enterprise Institute scholar Joshua Muravchik.
"If we hit a crisis, I think America will respond and prevail," adds Mr. Muravchik. "The trouble is that we're more likely to respond too late and to pay a much higher price than we might have had to pay otherwise."
NATO irrelevant now?
The end of the cold war has also made it harder to sustain public and congressional support for international institutions such as NATO, which one freshman Congressman, Joe Scarborough (R) of Florida, describes as a "relic of the cold war which won't have much relevance to the 21st century."
Mr. Scarborough is co-sponsor of a bill that would require the US to withdraw from the United Nations in four years in favor of what he describes as a "more informal grouping" perhaps made up of "like-minded democracies."
Diplomatic analysts note the irony that even as the US keeps its attention fixed on matters at home, major threats to US interests loom abroad, including potential aggression by China and North Korea, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and a change of leadership in Moscow that could set back US hopes for political and economic reform in Russia.
One reason foreign policy remains indistinct to many Americans is that the world has grown far more complex. Clear instances of cross-border aggression, such as Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, are the exception in a world where conflict is often internal and where some of the greatest dangers - like threats posed by runaway population growth and environmental deterioration to the political stability of poor nations - are long-term.
But diplomatic analysts point to three domestic circumstances that underlie the unusually hesitant state of American foreign policy:
*The seeming contradictions embedded in the views of the American public. According to opinion polls, Americans are willing to have the US play a role abroad but want their leaders to pick their shots with far more care.
*The emergence of a younger generation of mostly Republican lawmakers who have less experience abroad, are less familiar with the complexities of foreign policy, and who are thus more wary of global entanglements. They have directly challenged the views of the shrinking number of Republican leaders who have a more internationalist outlook on issues ranging from trade to US participation in peacekeeping operations overseas.
*The uncertainty of foreign-policy "elites," including policymakers and academic experts, who, like most other Americans, find it hard to define the nation's foreign-policy interests with great clarity. One case in point: Experts convened recently by the Council on Foreign Relations who, when asked to define vital American interests, could agree only on "the physical defense of US territory."
"The failure of this commendable effort only confirmed the sense of strategic confusion now besetting American foreign policy," writes Robert Hutchings, director of International Programs at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
The disposition of Americans to turn inward has been evident after nearly every war. But in the aftermath of the cold war there has been no leader with an internationalist vision, like Woodrow Wilson after World War I, nor any event, like communist aggression in Europe after World War II, to forceably remind Americans of their international responsibilities.
Instead of attempting to argue against the trend, Muravchik notes, political leaders and foreign-policy intellectuals have largely acquiesced to it.
After the Berlin wall fell in 1989, Democrats began scoring the Bush administration for being preoccupied with foreign affairs. Mr. Bush responded by pledging during his 1992 reelection campaign to focus his hoped-for second term on domestic policy. The problem was compounded by candidate Clinton, who zeroed in, laser-like, on the domestic economy and made only one foreign-policy speech between the Democratic convention and election day.
Even foreign-policy intellectuals paid homage to the primacy of domestic affairs. "'Put America first' is a dangerous old slogan," William Hyland, editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, wrote in 1991, "but in light of this decade's realities it is not altogether wrong."
"When neo-isolationism welled up in the grass roots there was a dramatic failure on the part of the elite and political leaders to formulate a case to the public about the need for an ongoing, active American foreign policy and about what that policy might consist of," says Muravchik, author of a new book, "The Imperative of American Leadership," that calls for a more assertive post-cold-war American foreign policy.
In the absence of a strong case to remain engaged in the world, diplomatic analysts say, it has been an easy matter for Congress to whittle away at the instruments of foreign policy. Defense spending has been cut. Embassies and missions abroad have been closed. Foreign aid has been trimmed. Support for international broadcasting, international exchange programs, and international institutions like the UN and the World Bank has been pared back.
Too many US options
Experts note that foreign-policy choices tend to be harder for the US to make, even under the best of circumstances, because it has more options to choose from than other countries. Geographical separation from the rest of the world has given the US the luxury of staying out of world affairs, as it did during the first three years of World War I and the first two years of World War II. At the same time, the America's overwhelming military and economic strength since World War II has provided almost unprecedented latitude for intervening in the affairs of other nations and regions.
There's another, more recent, circumstance that in the years ahead is likely to militate against the ability of American presidents to implement an internationalist foreign policy: the globalization of the US economy. This trend has often adversely affected not only blue collar workers in the industrial Midwest but millions of middle-class and upper-middle-class Americans employed as consultants, lawyers, accountants, and businessmen.
"We have a heightened awareness today of the social and economic costs of globalizing trends," says John Rielly. "One consequence is that it will make it more difficult for any president to sustain an internationalist foreign policy."
"What it means," Rielly adds, "is that if you have to be just concerned with earning a living and nothing else, you're going to be less inclined to react positively to the appeal of an American president that we should continue to play a strong role in the world."
The global economy has affected policymaking in another way, as the case of China illustrates. During the cold war, when China was an enemy and US trade interests nonexistent, dealing with China was relatively uncomplicated. Today, fashioning a coherent policy towards the Asian giant is far more difficult.
Even as US and Chinese economic interests are converging, thanks to billions in new investments and a burgeoning two-way trade, US and Chinese strategic interests continue to diverge. The result is the excruciating choice now facing President Clinton: whether to impose economic sanctions on China, which would hurt US business interests, or not to impose sanctions, which could signal to Beijing that the US does not take its violations of international trade and arms control treaties seriously.
The choice will be no easier for any successor to Mr. Clinton.
A variety of recent public opinion polls suggest that Americans have far more complex views about foreign policy and America's role in the world than journalists and politicians have reckoned with.
For example, Americans are skeptical about the UN's performance but believe the world body should play a prominent role in resolving world conflicts.
They support peacekeeping in general but are ambivalent about using US troops in Bosnia.
And they believe that taking care of problems at home is more important than providing aid abroad, but believe the US has a moral responsibility to help poor nations and actually favor spending more on foreign aid than the US now spends.
One reason for the complexity is that many Americans think the US is doing far more and spending far more on world affairs than it actually is. According to polls, they think 15 percent of the US budget is spent on foreign aid (the actual figure is 1 percent); that nearly a quarter of the defense budget is devoted to UN peacekeeping (the actual figure is 1 percent); that 40 percent of UN peacekeepers are American (the actual figure is 5 percent); and that US troops were in Bosnia a year ago, months before US soldiers actually joined a NATO peacekeeping force there.
Steven Kull, who co-directs the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes, says that despite such complexity, there is an element of consistency in the public's views about the US role in the world.
Americans want to remain engaged in the world, says Mr. Kull, but want the US to act in a multilateral context, sharing the responsibilities and financial burdens of world leadership with other countries and with international institutions like the UN.
"The assumption that US foreign policy is constrained by a public that has gone into an isolationist phase is just not correct," Kull says. "US policymakers are free to pursue an engaged foreign policy so long as the US doesn't bear a disproportionate share of the cost."
"The public is open to engagement abroad but they're not demanding it," adds Kull. "That means they're ready to be led."
Rep. Mark Sanford (R) of South Carolina represents a district that embodies these seeming contradictions. He says his constituents are conservative but insists they are not isolationist. And for good reason: one-third of his district's gross domestic product and one-third of its jobs derive from foreign trade.
"Most of the people in my district would say that we need to stay connected with the rest of the world," the freshman lawmaker says.
Even so, he says his constituents have a skeptical view of foreign policy, both because they don't see an overarching rationale for US involvement abroad as they did during the cold war ("They think it's a knee-jerk foreign policy," he says) and because they think the US spends too much money on foreign policy.
"What I hear from folks is that they want their foreign policy to fit within the cross-hairs of a rifle scope," Sanford says.
"If we're going to be involved let's make sure it's in an area of strategic interest and not just of interest. And let's make sure it's an area where we can actually bring about real change," he says.
Jonathan Clarke says the public's reluctance to engage abroad is the historical norm, the reassertion after the cold war of "a rather consistent, well-developed, and finely calibrated feeling for what does and what does not make sense for their nation's foreign entanglements" despite a large measure of ignorance about the world.
In the context of the cold war, Clarke notes, a president like Jimmy Carter could easily rally opposition to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, because Americans understood the Soviet threat and the US responsibility to contain it.
Today, he says, however strong American idealism may be, it is unlikely to translate into public pressure to intervene abroad unless US interests are demonstrably and directly on the line.
Nor is this the historical exception. Though smitten by the cause of Hungarian freedom fighters in the 1840s and 1950s, the US declined to come to their aid. Nor did America rush to rescue Belgium from a German invasion in 1914, or Ethoipia from Italian aggression in 1935.
"Americans are able to discriminate between courses of action with a far greater degree of subtlety and judgment than their relative unfamiliarity with the detailed facts of a particular case would suggest," writes Clarke.