WITH the United States presidential election less than a week away, and with Democratic candidate Gov. Bill Clinton still holding what appears to be a commanding lead, interest is intensifying around the world in how American foreign policy will be affected if Mr. Clinton is elected.
For three reasons, American foreign policy is unlikely to be radically altered in a Clinton administration, at least early on.
First, the Bush-Quayle administration significantly transformed US foreign policy from that pursued by President Ronald Reagan. On one issue area after another - Central America, third-world debt, arms control, narcotics policy, multilateralism and support for the United Nations - the Bush administration, confronted by the sea-change of 1989 and its aftermath, moved US policies toward those espoused by most mainstream Democrats.
Second, with the end of the cold war and the disintegration of the former Soviet Union, consensus is emerging on many of the key issues of the 1990s: the priority of economic renewal and improved competitiveness; the importance of environmental and population issues; the opportunity to reduce military expenditures prudently while encouraging greater burden-sharing with Europe and Japan and also strengthening the peacekeeping and peacemaking capacities both of the UN and of regional organizations; the nee d to overhaul the international systems of trade and finance in a liberalizing direction; the goal of assisting the economic growth both of the developing nations and of the former communist countries; and the goal of nurturing democratic politics and market-oriented economics worldwide.
Third, unlike in 1976 or 1980, this year foreign policy has not been much of an electoral issue. Nor are there influential groups of advisers around Clinton who are determined to introduce major foreign-policy innovations. The overwhelming emphasis of Clinton's experience and interest has been on domestic matters.
If Clinton is elected, he will introduce some changes of emphasis, however, and because the US is still so powerful, even small changes will have a global impact:
* A Clinton-Gore administration is likely to focus on global environmental issues and on world population policy, with the goals to narrow the gap between the US position and that of other major nations reflected at June's Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, to end the stranglehold on US population policy exerted by the anti-abortion lobby, and to foster consideration of stricter environmental measures, such as a tax on carbon-emitting fuels.
* A Clinton administration is likely to move further on arms-control measures, including a nuclear testing ban, and would probably reduce Pentagon expenditures at a slightly accelerated rhythm.
* A Clinton administration would probably be more fully committed to strengthening multilateral institutions, including the UN and various regional organizations. The Reagan administration was decidedly unilateral in its approach to international problems; the Bush administration has tilted toward multilateralism; a Clinton administration would probably be resolutely multilateralist.
* A Clinton administration, at least at first, would probably be somewhat more consistent in its policy of promoting democracy and protecting human rights, and might well look for innovative approaches and quick symbolic gestures in this arena. Policy toward China, in particular, might change somewhat under Clinton.
* A Clinton administration is likely to be somewhat more attentive than the Bush government to the claims and complaints of American labor. Clinton will support worker retraining, adjustment assistance, and workers' rights - but he will not reject the North American Free Trade Agreement.
THE most significant impact of a likely Clinton victory on American foreign policy will derive precisely from Clinton's strong focus on the accumulated domestic agenda of the US: industrial competitiveness, education, health care, domestic investment, urban revival, and the re-building of America's decaying infrastructure. The strategy that Clinton adopts for confronting these problems, and its degree of success, will shape America's role in the world.
Whichever candidate is elected - and particularly if Clinton is chosen - the transition period will see some rethinking of the organization of American foreign policymaking.
Preoccupation with national security in a military sense is giving way to primary concern with economic issues and a strong interest in combating threats without enemies - including environmental, refugee, and health issues.
It is time to think through the implications of the new agenda for policymaking, especially on so-called "intermestic" problems, straddling the line between foreign and domestic policy.
One final change that a Clinton-Gore victory would bring is a wholesale change in senior personnel. For foreign government officials and even for opposition leaders, the prospect of such a turnover is unsettling, as ties have been solidly established with incumbent US officials.
But American foreign policy may well improve, in fact, simply because the new officials have had the opportunity to reflect on the sweeping global changes of the past few years without being tied to existing policies and positions. They should be welcome interlocutors for those - in Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin American and the Caribbean, the Middle East, the former Soviet Union, and elsewhere - who seek to construct a better world order.