THE Clinton administration has been focusing attention this week on the domestic economy. It faces real challenges, among them finding ways to curb soaring health-care costs and reduce the federal deficit. But any thought the president might have entertained that he would be able to concentrate "like a laser" on these domestic matters and subordinate questions of foreign policy must surely have been vanquished.
The world is a very different place now than in the long cold-war era. Still, in most regards the foreign challenges facing the new administration are as demanding and perplexing as those before any previous presidency. For one thing, the collapse of the communist systems in eastern Europe and the former USSR has unleashed a new round of ethnic conflict, of which the fighting in Bosnia-Herzegovina is only a most dramatic and tragic example.
A recent review of the world scene identified 49 countries in which violence is occurring as a result of ethnic conflict. Not all of these cases make demands on American foreign policy, but many do.
Since foreign affairs will continue to press upon United States leadership, it is fortunate that the public remains internationally minded and prepared to shoulder large responsibilities around the world. We were told repeatedly during the last campaign that the country had entered a neoisolationist stage, having become wholly preoccupied with various real and imagined problems at home. Fortunately, that account was pure fiction.
For example, when George Bush dispatched 20,000 US troops to Somalia in the closing days of his administration, the supposedly world-weary US public immediately gave overwhelming consent. In a Yankelovich survey of Jan. 13-14, 79 percent said they backed the presence of American troops in Somalia; only 17 percent disapproved. And, about half (47 percent) of those surveyed by CBS News and the New York Times on Jan. 12-14 thought US troops should stay in the country "only as long as it takes to set up supp ly lines to make sure people don't starve." The other half (48 percent) opted for a more expansive mandate that the troops should stay "as long as it takes to make sure Somalia will remain peaceful."
The public also denies descriptions of it as isolationist as it endorses economic aid for Russia. It continues to back an activist and hard-line policy toward Iraq. More than 4 Americans in 5 think the US should try to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Roughly 3 in 5 say that if he does not comply with the United Nations resolutions, the US should use ground troops to invade Iraq. This activist and internationally minded American public makes a variety of distinctions about when and where their country s hould intervene. For example, though the Reagan administration worked long and hard to build support for US assistance to the contras in Nicaragua, a majority of Americans remained opposed to it. Today, a large majority oppose sending US troops to Bosnia unless our commitment is at once relatively limited and part of a UN force.
There's really nothing new in this pattern of widespread public backing for internationalism. For a half-century, though they have often been described as otherwise, Americans have wanted their country to play a large role in the world.
Even in the years just before Pearl Harbor, the public was far more cognizant of the fact that US entry into the war was probably unavoidable, and more prepared to act on this recognition, than it has been given credit for being. Of course, most people did not want war. But, when Gallup asked in December 1940, a year before Congress declared war, which of two things was the more important for the US to try to do, "to keep out of war ourselves, or to help England win even at the risk of getting into the w ar," 60 percent said help England.
After the war, Americans rallied to give strong support to the Marshall Plan. As early as 1946, National Opinion Research Center surveys found a large majority of the public favoring aid to help Japan "get her peacetime industry going again." At every stage in the long cold-war era, Americans backed a strong national defense and high levels of spending to sustain it. Even now, in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse, the public is cautious about dismantling such efforts and commitments.
Large majorities think, for example, that the US should maintain NATO and keep a substantial military presence in Europe. Some European leaders and others around the world worry that the American people may be tiring of their large international responsibilities. They shouldn't worry. Americans remain supportive of an activist foreign policy and display a rather discerning internationalism. If the Clinton administration acts prudently to maintain the country's world leadership, it will get all the public
backing it needs.