By common consent, the fifth year of a two-term presidency gives a president unequaled opportunities to make a real mark on foreign policy. Here are some priorities for President Clinton's next 12 months:
*Reverse the tone and content of Washington's engagement with the United Nations. The snide, sniping campaign the first Clinton administration launched against UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali was paralleled with massive arrears on payment of UN dues and frequent obstructionism on important UN missions. Most recently, US foot-dragging has been identified as one factor delaying the UN response to the entirely foreseeable crisis in eastern Zaire.
But Mr. Clinton, part deux, should go beyond simply not holding UN missions up. He should be out front with realistic proposals for a swifter, more effective UN emergency response - and back it up by creating a new corps of volunteers in the US military that is trained and ready to take part in UN humanitarian and peacekeeping missions. As a matter of course, the president should call in the leaders of the next Congress and tell them that he and a clear majority of the American public want and expect them to pay our UN dues in full. And yes, with confidence born from his re-election, the president can certainly call Mr. Boutros-Ghali and say another two years in office makes good sense to him.
*Contingency planning for all kinds of scenarios in nuclear-heavy Russia gains a new urgency, given uncertainties about President Yeltsin's survival and questions about the forces at play in any succession. All such planning should aim to preserve the fragile roots that democratic habits and institutions have been able to put down in Russia.
*Clinton Two faces tough, immediate decisions on how to proceed on Bosnia, and on Arab-Israeli peacemaking. In both cases, there might be a strong tendency to muddle through with further modification of the slow-moving, incrementalist policies of Clinton One. But this would be a mistake. In past months, difficult decisions in these two areas were deliberately postponed until after the election. Now, they have built up explosively strong steam heads of urgency. What workable stabilization formula can be devised for Bosnia for the period after IFOR's mandate expires on Dec. 20? How can the "land for peace" principle (and thus, the peace itself) be saved in the Middle East? Participants in these dramas can wait no longer for answers.
*The president should launch a worldwide initiative to make "constructive engagement" with Beijing more constructive - especially for China's democrats and religious and ethnic minorities. Since Clinton One de-linked Washington's trade policy toward China from Beijing's human rights behavior, the latter has worsened. But it's time - in close coordination with other G-7 leaders - to reverse that trend. A good first step (as in South Africa) would be to list common benchmarks for the behavior of Chinese enterprises with which G-7 countries continue to do business.
The tasks listed above are all quite doable, and any failure to undertake them successfully could leave the president's historical legacy looking sad, or chaotic, or both. Speed, to take advantage of the fifth-year window, is essential. Also needed are a projection of presidential leadership strong enough to win congressional support through persuasion, not wrangling, and a return to the Department of State of many of the powers that over recent years seeped over to the Pentagon and agencies dealing with international economic matters.
Clinton's "bridge to the 21st century" will be taking us all to a world more globally connected than ever before. So the foreign policy segments of the bridge will be important ones. Let's see him, as well as his new secretary of state, start building them soon.
*Helena Cobban writes on foreign affairs from Washington.