IN 1989 the top debate within the White House foreign-policy staff was: Is Mikhail Gorbachev a true reformer? Or do his policies mask a return to aggressive Bolshevism?
Today, this seems a stone-age debate. East Europe's revolt ended a 40-year cold war. Popular uprisings toppled rigid and corrupt governments, the Berlin Wall fell, and the world political landscape changed overnight, as if in time-lapse photography. The Soviet Union is gone. Germany is unified. Moscow joined a United States-led coalition against Iraq. Small states - from Cuba to Zaire - no longer play East off against West. Mideast leaders are at the peace table, partly because of the new strategic situa tion.
US foreign policy faces a new and uncertain world.
The next president will address three main themes:
First, post-cold war change. Security is no longer just deterrence and arms control. Aid to Russia is a security matter. The United Nations is increasingly important, and Germany and Japan want seats on the Security Council. The US wields the most influence, but does so among more diverse groups of nations and interests.
* Second, a rise of global trading blocs: a Japanese bloc that may include South Korea and China; a European Community bloc coming together in fits and starts; an emerging US-led North American bloc. Competition means that a strong foreign policy must be linked to a strong domestic economy.
* Third, new tensions between sovereignty and nationalism. The post-Soviet vacuum is being filled by ethnic contention and violence. In Estonia, ethnic Russians were not allowed to vote in recent elections. Serbs in the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia bring a grim new phrase - "ethnic cleansing" - to the West. Will new angers slowly burn out? Or do they represent a regressive, tribal dynamic that will spread if unaddressed? China, Cambodia, South Africa, and Haiti raise ongoing human-rights dilemmas.
Practically, the next president must reevaluate the cold-war government apparatus formed in 1947 through the National Security Act. In response to containment policy, the act created the Department of Defense, the CIA, and the White House National Security Council. These need streamlining.
US policy should reflect US values. Derided at the time, the 1977 Helsinki Agreement on human rights helped end the cold war. A new world needs an articulation of such ideals. Will the US support intervention in cases of genocide inside borders - as with Kurds in Iraq?
President Bush clearly has the edge in experience and feel for the mechanics of foreign policy over Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. Mr. Clinton is a foreign-policy unknown. He has made few spoken mistakes, but he hasn't said much. His chief adviser, James Carville, sticks to domestic issues. But Clinton has scored some foreign-policy points. His aid-to-Russia proposal last April was good enough to panic the White House into announcing a plan of its own an hour before Clinton gave his speech. Clinton argued e arly for US helicopter gunships to guard aid convoys in Yugoslavia. The White House called this "reckless," then later proposed the idea.
Clinton reportedly had a detailed grasp of foreign policy when briefed by CIA chief Robert Gates. His advisers number both interventionists and peace advocates. A clue to Clinton's approach may be his ideas on industrial policy, which require a strategic approach, integrating foreign and domestic policy.
The Bush record on foreign policy, though touted, is mixed. In the technical management of arms control, Mideast peace talks, the unification of Germany, and Gulf war coalition building, the White House and Secretary of State James Baker have been tops - even brilliant. Mr. Bush, unlike Mr. Reagan, developed a sporty style of diplomacy based on personal relationships.
Yet a personal style contains pitfalls in a changing world. Late to embrace Gorbachev, Bush clung to him too long. In projecting democratic values and leadership in the post-cold war world, Bush has done far too little. Russian aid has been minimal. Inaction on Yugoslavia could haunt the West. Last winter's Japan trip was humiliating. China policy needs refining.
Whether Bush or Clinton wins, US foreign policy in the coming years must be reinvented.