Our TV Foreign Policy

1HE dramatic changes in the international environment over the past decade have been paralleled by even more fateful changes in the way the American government deals with the world.

President Reagan articulated a clearly defined, albeit in the minds of some, overly simple, foreign policy - and his actions derived from it.

President Bush admittedly lacked the ``vision thing,'' and never formulated a foreign policy as such. Instead, he assembled a brilliant team of crisis managers to respond to developments. But because of the absence of a foreign policy, their skills were often put to the test.

Now, President Clinton, facing a vastly different and more complex world, appears to be substituting media management for crisis management. The approach appears to reflect a view that how events are reported is more important than how they are handled. This media-obsessed, McLuhanesque presidency unintentionally revealed itself when an aide to Secretary of State Warren Christopher recently told the Washington Post: ``Foreign policy is off Page 1, thank God'' - as if news coverage were the proper measure of foreign policy.

The reasons for this shift from policy to crisis management to media management have been much-discussed: the increasing desire of the American people to focus on domestic issues now that we have ``won'' the cold war, the declining willingness of the Congress and the people to defer to the executive branch in the absence of a single, obvious threat, and the incredible complexity of the post-cold-war world.

Yet the consequences of this approach are serious enough to cry out for greater attention.

* All too often, the administration's statements and actions seem to be made without reference to the broader context in time or space - just like much media reporting in the electronic age. Sometimes this means that messages meant for one audience have a bigger impact on unintended audiences, with unintended results. Thus, Mr. Clinton's statements at the APEC meeting in Seattle last month about the rising importance of Asia will certainly have an impact on our traditional allies in Europe. Our failure to respond to Serbian aggression in Bosnia sends a powerful message about how we would not react to the projection of military power elsewhere, first and foremost by Russia in the post-Soviet states.

* The absence of an articulated policy leads to an ``in-box, out-box'' public stance. The administration constantly shifts in response to transitory reportage - now saying one thing, and then just as quickly saying or doing its opposite. Haiti, Somalia, and Bosnia - tough issues all - are three prime examples of this approach.

* Most important, as we saw with the Bush administration's crisis-management approach, a failure to define and maintain a foreign policy discourages allies who have counted on us but now assume they must increasingly go it alone. It also encourages potential opponents to test us, precisely because they believe that we will shift in the wind.

Can anything be done to change this pattern?

Replacing a few senior officials - an often suggested remedy - is not enough. Instead, the Clinton administration and all of us who hope that America's interests can be defended and advanced need to get serious about defining a policy.

The enormous problems we face make foreign policy more, not less important. Crisis management was inadequate; media management is even worse.

Getting foreign policy ``off Page 1'' is the wrong way to go. Getting it back in the front of our thinking is precisely what needs to be done. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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