American Colossus Faces Major Changes

CAMELOT: The day my friend and I put our kids into waterproofs and walked them up there, it proved to be a wet hilltop with some raised earthworks and many nettle patches - the whole place glutinous with mud.

I have recalled that outing with every reference to the "Camelot" quality of the new Clinton era. Perhaps recalling the fate of King Arthur's glittering court can help us to gain perspective.

We are living through a strange, historical time warp. Back in February 1989, who in Russia or elsewhere could imagine what would become of the Kremlin's proud empire in four years?

The four years of President Clinton's present term may be equally as momentous for America's role in the world.

Let's think forward four of the present era's fast-rolling years. What might, in that time, become of America's role in the world? The first prediction is the only safe one: We will not, in 1997, be in the position we see today. A broad range of possibilities beckon, ranging anywhere between disastrous and modestly hopeful.

Let's start at the bottom. "Very disastrous" might mix many negative features. The imploding of the former "Soviet threat" may melt the glue that for 45 years bound America to the world's other industrial powers. It was on my fourth birthday, growing up in England, that Britain and France invaded Suez. Within hours, President Eisenhower pulled the rug out from under the pound sterling. Adieu, Britains' once-glorious empire. Creditors tend to have that power.

Similarly negative for world order, and perhaps for America's role in it: militant revanchism, or deep civil strife, in a Russia still wielding thousands of nuclear arms.

Missteps on Bosnia or increased polarization between America and its allies on the question of treatment of Israel. An ill-considered American intervention in the Middle East. Any of these would gnaw at the foundation of world order.

Meantime, missteps in putting our house in order at home could similarly undermine America's global position. It's tough being Number One, and the scenarios for diminishment of our role in the world are many, indeed.

Fortunately, the declinist scenario is not the only possibility. Mr. Clinton may, though untested in diplomacy, understand enough about human affairs to see the need for leadership, fairness, and daring in his conduct of foreign policy.

The tired, old nostra of the cold war will have to be revised, starting with the idea that big defense budgets somehow serve the national interest. The Pentagon's ongoing charge account burdens generations to come. But it makes little contribution to the nation's defense, and none to the urgent task of increasing American productivity. Better to be upgrading needed infrastructure at home rather than perfecting new armaments. High-tech weaponry is worth nothing if the economy crumbles.

A second cliche to be revised is the idea, in relations with other democratic powers, of America as the envied City on a Hill. Yes, the democratic world owes the United States a huge debt of gratitude for the vision its leaders showed in the decades after World War II. But today our relationship with those powers is more equal, more complex.

Time was when we conducted the concert of Democracy, most of the players followed the American baton. Now, as the worldwide debate on Bosnia shows, it will take major discussion to produce anything but self-defeating squawks. Clinton has shown he sees the value of team-building at home. He needs to start applying those same skills with allies abroad.

The confident, caring America of forty-somethings who want to bequeath a better planet to the 21st century can make a difference. I told you about the mud on Camelot. But did I tell you about the view from the top? When we got up there, the misty English rain eased and the clouds parted. There before us, gleaming in the sunlight, were the good fields and peaceful villages of Avalon. With four years, Clinton could also be in a position to show us the view.

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