WASHINGTON — So far the dialogue of the 1996 US presidential campaign has dwelt on many things. For the most part, the future of the world hasn't been one of them.
It's not surprising that Oval Office hopefuls focus on jobs instead of Japan, character instead of Kuwait, and taxes instead of Turkey and its future inside NATO. As George Bush learned to his regret in 1992, foreign policy expertise may not swing many votes in today's inward-looking, post-cold-war America.
The problem is that the next US chief executive could well face an unprecedented array of overseas crises, ranging from a leadership change in China to new fighting in the Middle East. Foreign policy - not tax cuts or values - might become the most important focus.
"The foreign policy establishment is convinced that in the next administration there are some big, taxing problems ahead," says Robert Hutchings, director of international studies at the Woodrow Wilson Center.
Other nations have not been entirely absent from this year's Dole-Clinton contest. The GOP standardbearer criticized the recent White House Middle East summit as "photo-op foreign policy" - though he didn't really indicate how a Dole administration would have handled the surge in Israeli-Palestinian violence. Last Sunday's presidential debate also touched on the administration's response to Iraqi adventurism, and criteria for sending US forces overseas.
But discussion of foreign issues remains both scant and too narrowly focused, according to foreign policy experts. There's been wrangling over whether particular moves were the right ones - and no argument over broad US interests, or the US role in the world.
That may be what voters want now that the burdens of cold war leadership have been lifted, points out a recent report on US leadership by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. It's also ironic, considering that America is likely to remain the sole superpower nation for years, if not decades to come.
"More than any time in its past, the United States is strongly positioned to influence the kind of world it would like to see unfold," concludes the "Foreign Policy Into the 21st Century" study.
THE next president might find far more scope for the exercise of power overseas. US presidents talk about job creation and boast about GDP success, but their ability to influence the huge US economy is rather limited. That's especially true today, when deficit reduction, rather than new spending programs, remains a domestic priority.
And as Bill Clinton has discovered, the world has a way of barging onto a president's agenda. That's likely to happen more and more between now and the year 2000, say experts. Cycles of history in many nations are likely to reach important points over the next four years.
Take China. Paramount leader Deng Xiaoping has been declining for years. His passing would likely exacerbate the ongoing struggle to be his successor, with huge implications for both the fastest-growing economy in the world and Asia at large. Thus the next US administration will probably have to deal with new Chinese leadership at a time when it is still unclear whether quiet engagement or public pressure is the best way to deal with China's human rights abuses. The upcoming annexation of Hong Kong could further strain US-Chinese relations, if Beijing cracks down on Hong Kong's economic and political freedoms.
North Korea might be an even more acute Asian problem. It is almost a certainty that the hard-line Pyongyang regime is going to collapse sometime in the next four years, judge Asia experts. The only question is whether it will collapse softly, and peacefully reunite with South Korea, or opt instead for a hard landing and attack its neighbor.
A new Korean war would present an obvious - and dire - crisis for an American president. A "soft landing" could hold more subtle challenges. If not deftly handled it might result in Chinese intervention, says James Shinn, an Asian expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The US should start talking to China now about Korean reunification, says Mr. Shinn. "The Chinese view North Korea as an important buffer state. They went to war once before over this subject," he says.
Europe is likely to present the next president with more traditional problems - NATO's future, for one. The next president is likely to have to make hard decisions about the pace of allowing new members into the western alliance. Whether to commit US forces to the military defense of Poland or the Czech Republic is a big decision - yet there's been little talk of it on the campaign stump so far.
Russian president Boris Yeltsin's health might soon also present the Oval Office with a foreign policy problem. If Yeltsin dies or is incapacitated the choice of a new leader so soon after an election could strain nascent Russian democracy. What should the US do or say in that event?
A reelected Clinton or a newly elected Dole will also have to make tough decisions about the continuation of the commitment of US forces to Bosnia. They'll have to help oversee a rickety Mideast peace process. And the next White House occupant will likely be called upon to help jump-start a process of reconciliation in Northern Ireland.