AFTER a year of focusing on domestic policy and facing his first major state visits to Europe and Russia this month, President Clinton is restructuring his foreign-policy team. Last week the president chose old friend Strobe Talbott to fill the vacant No. 2 spot in the State Department. This may give the White House a more vigorous image in foreign policy. The job would also prepare Mr. Talbott to be the next secretary of state.
Prior to his role as ambassador to the former Soviet Union, Talbott never managed an office larger than the Washington bureau of Time magazine, and that only briefly. Now Talbott will manage the 18,000 State Department employees, a demanding task. In addition, Talbott will be the spokesman for US foreign policy and continue to coordinate US Russia policy. Any of these assignments is a full-time job; Clinton's Oxford chum now has three of them.
The White House would like better marks on foreign policy than it has scored so far. The Talbott move is part of a quiet reshuffling seen in the replacement of Secretary of Defense Les Aspin with Adm. Bobby Ray Inman, a stronger voice for Vice President Al Gore Jr., and the rise of Talbott, who already has a special channel to Clinton. (Talbott replaces Clifton Wharton Jr., who resigned in October during harsh criticism of US handling of Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia.)
Warren Christopher, the secretary of state, wants a modest profile and will orchestrate the new players. Mr. Christopher admits Talbott will be an alter ego allowing him to focus on negotiations, especially those between Israel and Syria.
The first order of business comes right away when the president travels on his first major state visit - a NATO summit in Brussels Jan. 10 followed by meetings in Europe and Moscow. The summit offers an immediate and important test: How quickly ought NATO to offer security guarantees or membership to former Warsaw Pact states now that Russia shows signs of revanchism? Would such action make Russia feel isolated, and act accordingly?
No comprehensive US foreign policy approach has yet emerged since the cold war. The White House has persistently supported ``enlarging'' democracy through free markets, as progress on NAFTA and the GATT accord attest. Yet useful though this may be, it cannot substitute for policy principles needed to face harder issues like Russia, NATO, North Korea, the Middle East. A new foreign policy team must show new initiatives and make clear those principles for which it will use force and make sacrifices.
This will require a new focus.