World Waits for Clinton's 'Clarity of Purpose'

US foreign policy should have two principal concerns: protection of the national interest and the spread of freedom

While much of the world is bemused by the American political process, it is generally understood abroad that decisionmaking in Washington goes on hold for several months every four years while Americans choose a president.

But this year's election is over, and patience is wearing thin as the world waits to discover what the administration's foreign policy will be. Thundered the Financial Times to the president: "Now it's the world, stupid."

In more delicate language, discussing the Clinton presidency's history of foreign policy conducted on a case-by-case basis, The Economist called for an overarching vision, but warned plaintively that such "clarity of purpose" cannot come easily out of the Clinton White House.

The last president who had a clear vision of foreign policy was Ronald Reagan, whose message was very simple: Fend off, and ultimately dismantle, the "evil empire" of communism. Since then, both President Bush and President Clinton have stumbled through a changing world that may be safer, but is no simpler, as a result of communism's eclipse.

United States foreign policy should have two principal concerns. One is the protection of the national interest. The other is the spread of freedom and the prosperity that usually attends democracy. The goals are complementary. Nations that enjoy democracy and are prospering don't usually challenge the security or well-being of the US.

If this seems a rather obvious agenda, there are complications in its implementation. One of of the most significant is the contradiction between maintaining stable relationships with dictatorships, while advancing the human rights of citizens repressed by those dictatorships.

Take China and Serbia. China is an emerging colossus and an enormous potential market for American business. Mr. Clinton is taking some fire for appearing to downplay America's concern for human rights in China in order to cement an economic partnership with the country's ruling regime. In Serbia, the Clinton administration has lagged in condemning recent political excesses by President Slobodan Milosevic. Mr. Milosevic is no democrat, but he is a key player in the rickety American formula for maintaining an uneasy peace in Bosnia, where thousands of American and other NATO troops are at risk.

With the exception of incoming Secretary of Defense William Cohen, the national security team that Clinton is assembling to conduct foreign policy in the next four years is drawn from the same team that helped conduct foreign policy in the past four years. Will there be more direction and decisiveness in the second term? From whom then will it come?

Madeleine Albright, the incoming secretary of state, is a tough, outspoken diplomat with the capacity to alienate fellow diplomats with her abrasiveness, while at the same time charming hard-line critics of the administration's foreign policy such as Sen. Jesse Helms. Her political skills will be severely tested. Congress is in a penny-pinching mood at a time when Ms. Albright will be demanding substantial resources for the conduct and promotion of US foreign policy. Congress also has lost many longtime lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, who brought a sensitive appreciation for bipartisanship to the evolution of foreign policy.

Within her own State Department, Albright must find a modus vivendi with Strobe Talbott, her deputy, whose retention in that slot was clearly a condition for her appointment. Mr. Talbott is a longtime friend of the president's, which gives him his own direct channel to the White House.

In different administrations in recent years, there has been tension between secretaries of state and secretaries of defense over the extent to which US military force should be projected around the world. Secretaries of state such as George Shultz have argued that diplomacy should be backed by the use of limited force when necessary. The Pentagon, while long preparing contingency plans for a major war with the then-Soviet Union, has hesitated about committing troops to smaller, regional confrontations.

Where will Defense Secretary Cohen come down? Beyond the question of whether forces should be committed is the question of how long to endure casualties. Many foreign critics of the administration say the US cut and ran when it started taking casualties in Somalia and again when confronted by hostile crowds in Haiti. They say the US procrastinated for three years before committing forces to Bosnia. Then it dithered when considering troop movements to help refugees in Central Africa. One element of an effective foreign policy must be clarification of the reliability of US military commitments, even in the face of agonizing concerns over loss of life.

Finally, there is Anthony Lake, the incoming director of central intelligence. Mr. Lake has long been dedicated to the protection of human rights. How will he fare when his agency is involved in murky operations around the world that impinge on the human rights of foreign nationals?

It is not clear how these aides will influence the foreign policy agenda. What is clear is the urgent need for a president relatively unversed in foreign affairs to coordinate and articulate his new administration's approach to foreign policy for a waiting world.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, has served as US assistant secretary of state and assistant secretary-general of the United Nations.

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