AFTER the events of Los Angeles, what has become of the American role in world affairs? From the White House, President George Bush showed new uncertainty in many fields, after the sad tumult of those days. And all of us who look at relations between Americans and others have had new questions to ponder in the past two weeks.
Is this what "winning the cold war" means?
Is internal breakdown a feature of the whole post-bipolar world, in the former Yugoslavia, the former Soviet Union, and, now, in the United States as well?
The answer to this second question is still, after reflection, "no." The degree of internal collapse revealed in Los Angeles presaged no imminent threat to the integrity of the US. What it represented was an urgent tug on the apron strings of the country's leaders, from an important but undervalued domestic constituency.
Have countries ever faced such pressures before? Indeed they have. But as American and world history shows, it can take extraordinary gifts of leadership to steer between the opposing pulls of domestic and international commitments. Two diverse examples:
* David Ben-Gurion. In 1951, Israel's first prime minister faced multiple threats to the existence of the three-year-old Jewish state. Many of these came from neighboring Arab states. But Ben-Gurion identified another threat, from Israel's inability to absorb the hundreds of thousands of new Jewish immigrants flooding in at that time. Against the protest of many of his generals, he decided Israel should slash its defense spending, and redirect resources to immigrant absorption.
It proved a wise decision. Immigrant absorption became more successful. When Israel went to war in 1956, the country was strong enough to prevail against Egypt. And Ben-Gurion was reelected several times after 1951.
* Winston Churchill. Churchill's performance as Britain's prime minister from mid-1940 on played a pivotal role in ensuring that the island nation could survive and ultimately help to defeat Hitler's Germany. He inspired Britons with his evocative radio speeches, and through his own tireless example. He steered Britain through difficult diplomatic waters, and worked with generals and allies to ensure final victory. But before that victory came - the British people voted him out of office!
What the British people voted for in 1945 was a new social compact at home. That, they did not feel Churchill would give them. The Labour government they brought in gave them new schools, a determined effort to rebuild their war-torn land, and their country's landmark National Health Service.
It may seem unrealistic for Americans to hope to have a leader of the caliber of Ben-Gurion or Churchill over the years ahead. But if the country is to have a stab at winning the peace of the 1990s as well as it won the cold war, then a massive redirection of national resources toward meeting domestic needs is clearly called for.
Yes, the generals will probably complain. That's what we pay them for - to sit and think about military threats. But today's America faces little immediate military threat. The globe-wide neighborhood we inhabit is much, much safer for us than Ben-Gurion's Middle East in 1951.
If we slash spending on military gadgets and manpower, a lot of those resources could be put to use within a different framework, reconstructing America. If the US government can mobilize the human and financial resources needed to design and build "smart" delivery systems for long-range missiles, couldn't it spearhead an effort to design and build delivery systems for basic health care here within our nation? Engineers previously employed by the military could revamp our domestic transit systems. Couldn 't the lessons of racial integration learned in Gen. Colin Powell's military be applied within our decaying cities?
Would a redirecting of national resources from global military reach toward domestic needs mean turning our back on the world? Not at all. It would mean that the administration would place less reliance on the military establishment in mediating our relations with others, than has been the case during recent decades.
This would force greater emphasis on diplomatic smarts, on international coalition-building and true statecraft in the conduct of foreign affairs.