PRESIDENT Clinton's first major foreign-policy address, given at the United Nations Sept. 27, attempted to quiet widely held concerns that the United States is retreating from its leadership role in the world at a time of genuine uncertainty abroad.
Whether it will do so or not depends largely on what kinds of actions the administration now takes. The ``enlargement'' of democracy and free markets the president seeks will require a better focus of American power and purpose. This focus, a foreign policy, must be conducted in a more complex world.
The UN speech set out two ideas with immediate implications. Mr. Clinton will push hard to end nuclear testing and the production of fissile material. With China about to test again, North Korea not cooperating fully, and Iran likely to develop a nuclear device, this is a timely step that needs considerable follow-up.
Second is an effort to contain the growth of UN peacekeeping operations. Tougher criteria and time limits will be required before committing troops and paying for them. Given an uncertain mission in Somalia, and an on-again off-again policy on the genocide in Bosnia, this sends a very mixed signal to the international community on the most basic issue of all - the American use of power abroad. Here lies the rub.
The essential UN message is that the US will work harder to strengthen international institutions. Added to this is a loud signal that Clinton realizes the new world is more chaotic and dangerous, and that, as in the period of Harry Truman and the ``wise men'' in the 1950s, a defining stamp needs to be placed on it. The speech implies that the UN, backed by the US, will forge this new definition.
Yet institutions like the UN have not proven they can provide security. At this moment in history, political will and leadership are forged by nations, not multinational institutions. The US is the most powerful nation. Its actions define the times. Hence the importance of the questions: What principles does the US hold, and what will it do to back them up?
That Clinton has been faulted in this regard is not a mistake. Candidate Clinton promised refuge for Haitian boat people, an end to favorable trade with China, and force in Bosnia. President Clinton has not kept these promises. In some cases, he is right not to. But foreign policy clearly takes a back seat to domestic concerns. The real US policy is the so-called ``Tarnoff doctrine'' - calling for less involvement in world troubles. The handshake between Messrs. Rabin and Arafat was historic, but the deal was cut by Norway.
Tellingly, the White House has done nothing on the ugliest problem since the cold war - the genocide on the doorstep of Europe. The Economist in London argues that US foreign policy will ``rise or fall by Bosnia.'' Sen. Robert Dole calls the situation there a ``foreign policy crossroads.''
Mr. Clinton cannot cross this crossroads with a speech. The president is a complex thinker. But what foreign ministries listened for is not complex. They want to know how the US will use power, and why. Clinton has yet to clearly answer that question.