THE view from the State Department is pretty bleak at first glance.
For one thing, the passport scandal is not dying down. Last week's report by the inspector general has only fueled charges that the White House knew perfectly well what was going on when State Department officials were riffling through President-elect Clinton's passport files.
For another, the world itself seems to be suffering through a period of intractable crises. Up to half the food aid sent to Somalia is being stolen. Serb aggression in the Balkans has exploded the notion that a nation modern enough to have hosted the Olympics (1984 Winter Games) is necessarily civilized.
Many critics feel that if there is an answer to these new world problems, it involves the use of force, not negotiations. That would be the responsibility not of Foggy Bottom but of the Pentagon across the river in northern Virginia. It's a paradox, perhaps: The cold war was a dangerous time, and in Washington people were always calling for more diplomacy. Today's world is far less physically perilous for the United States, and suddenly critics of official policy seem to want to send the Marines everywhe re.
Against this background, it may be hard to see diplomatic opportunities anywhere. But in one State Department auditorium last week, they were doing just that.
A Foggy Bottom seminar on US foreign policy in the changing world, sponsored by the nonprofit Atlantic Council of the United States, attempted to lift its gaze above short-term problems to identify areas where international cooperation might head off tomorrow's Somalias and Bosnias.
The fall of communism, after all, means that the prospects for such cooperation are "of an order of magnitude that we simply have not been able to imagine at earlier times," said retired Gen. Andrew Goodpaster, Atlantic Council chairman.
At the seminar, the ex-head of the World Bank, Barber Conable, pointed out trends he says he believes have accompanied the explosion of worldwide democracy in recent years, and complement it.
One, he said, is "the empowerment of peoples everywhere." The communication revolution has brought cheap radios to the poorest people on earth, Mr. Conable noted. He added that in many parts of the developing world there has been fast growth in the emphasis given primary education.
The World Bank itself has "tripled the amount of money that we are putting into primary education over what it was five years ago," Conable said.
The third world is fast gaining a better understanding of what it has to gain from both freer international trade and protection of its own environment. "Environment is no longer a rich man's hobby," Conable claimed.
Most Americans, of course, believe that their own economy is not in good enough shape to extend large sums of aid to less fortunate nations. And it is true that the huge federal-budget deficit is a ticking time bomb, and that the skills of the US labor force have been deteriorating, noted Alice Rivlin, Brookings Institution senior fellow in economics.
Revitalizing the US economy is a step the US has to take on the road towards revitalizing its ability to act in the world, Ms. Rivlin said. And restoring its capacity to act is "the biggest challenge facing the United States as we look ahead right now ... restoring our belief that problems can be solved, that public and private policies of Americans can contribute to their solution at home and abroad," Rivlin said.