Foreign Issues Tug At Next President

New world disorder will require hard choices

Although relations with the rest of the world were all but ignored in the presidential election, the winner confronts an array of foreign-policy issues that hold profound implications for the United States' political and economic well-being.

In fact, overseas issues could well rival domestic concerns in the next four years. The world remains rife with nasty regional conflicts, while some big powers such as Russia and China may face delicate transitions of leadership.

The new administration's approach to trade will affect US jobs and corporate profits, while its stewardship of Middle East peace efforts and policies in the Gulf could impact the availability and price of oil.

The new president's conduct of foreign policy will also impact his overall relations with Congress. With the country no longer facing the Soviet threat and the public favoring a balanced budget and fewer global commitments, his ability to advance US interests abroad will be affected by the funding of the foreign-affairs budget.

Many analysts say whoever occupies the White House will have to press Congress to restore GOP-authored budget cuts that have slashed foreign-aid programs, hobbled State Department operations, and forced embassy closures. As a result, they say, the US has lost diplomatic clout, forcing it to rely more heavily in international crises on unpopular and costly military responses with uncertain consequences.

"A major task right off the bat will be trying to straighten out the day-to-day management of foreign policy, but that will depend on Congress," says Stephen Hook, a foreign-policy expert at Kent State University in Ohio.

Many experts say the new president will face a range of issues that transcend international borders and are helping fuel post-cold-war conflicts and regional tensions that affect US interests. These include global environmental degradation, the growing disparity in wealth between developed and developing nations, overpopulation, food shortages, and serious health problems.

But with the US facing no overt threats to its power and preoccupied with pressing domestic concerns, the new president will likely be able to focus on the "high politics" of the most important foreign-policy issues.

Many experts say his top priority should be devising a balanced approach toward communist China that safeguards US economic interests and allies in East Asia, while averting a cold- war-style rivalry with the world's fastest-growing economic power. This won't be easy.

"China is probably the No. 1 serious problem for American foreign policy," says Stephen Gilbert, head of national security studies at Georgetown University in Washington.

China has become America's fifth-largest trading partner, and US firms are hungry to invest in the world's most populous market. But Sino-US relations abound with tensions over China's territorial feuds with neighbors, human-rights abuses, piracy of US movies and music, and sales of nuclear-weapons technology to Pakistan and arms to Iran.

The main source of friction is democratic Taiwan, which China considers a rebel province. China this year staged war games to demonstrate its readiness to use force to end Taiwanese aspirations to independence. The US answered by deploying two aircraft-carrier battle groups off Taiwan, showing its readiness to defend the island.

The US seeks the peaceful reunification of Taiwan with China. But should Beijing use a heavy hand in Hong Kong after Britain returns the capitalist bastion next year, Taiwan could redouble its quest for independence, prompting a new confrontation between the US and China.

The new president will have to decide quickly on contributing US troops to a new NATO peacekeeping mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina after the alliance's current mandate expires next month. President Clinton says he's pulling the 16,000-strong US contingent out as scheduled and has no plans yet to replace them.

But the US is under pressure to join a smaller successor operation to NATO's 58,000-member force. European allies vow to withdraw their troops if the US doesn't participate, raising the specter of a new war. Collapse of the US-brokered peace accords would raise doubts about the US leadership of NATO and commitment to European security.

Helping Russia stay the difficult course of democratization will pose a major challenge to the new US president. With Russian President Boris Yeltsin's health in question, a power struggle raging in the Kremlin, and the country facing severe economic problems, some experts see great potential for instability that could push Moscow back toward authoritarianism and confrontation with the US and its allies.

Moscow is already irate over the US-orchestrated plan to have NATO admit former communist Eastern European states beginning next year. The issue is fueling a refusal by the Russian parliament to ratify the START II accord with the US on new nuclear-arms reductions.

A number of immediate challenges await the new president in the volatile Middle East, including getting the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, signed in Washington in 1993, back on track.

Serious tensions persist between the US and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The US in September fired cruise missiles at Iraqi targets and expanded a no-fly zone in southern Iraq after the Iraqi Army intervened in fighting between minority Kurds.

US-Iraqi frictions remain high following the two American pilots' firing of missiles at Iraqi radar sites on Nov. 2 and Nov. 4.

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