AMONG the many lessons Bill Clinton learned in his tumultuous first year as president, one of the largest may be that foreign policy constitutes a major part of the job.
The candidate who promised to focus like a ``laser beam'' on the economy has found that once one enters the Oval Office, overseas crises keep going off like flashbulbs, disturbing domestic concentration.
Budgets and legislation may follow predictable rhythms; Russia, Bosnia, and Somalia do not.
Delegation of responsibility for managing relations with the rest of the world only works so far.
On important foreign-related issues - such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) - it takes full presidential involvement to rally a voting public that is largely uninterested in most other countries' problems.
``Presidential leadership is by far the most important ingredient in a successful foreign policy,'' said Rep. Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, at a recent State Department forum assessing the year's accomplishments.
The year 1993 was a tough one for the former governor of a small Southern state to make his debut on the world stage.
The cold-war framework that guided the decisions of so many previous presidents completely collapsed.
No new overarching way of looking at the world has arisen to help set United States goals for such vexing regional issues as the continued fighting in the Balkans.
Yet 1994 promises to be just as rough, even without taking into account the sure fact that some surprising crises will arise. The following are some difficult issues that Representative Hamilton foresees the president having to wrestle with:
* Bosnian peacekeeping. If European Community-United Nations negotiations finally establish an agreement between warring parties in Bosnia, the US will be asked to provide a substantial number of peacekeepers for implementation. However, Hamilton says it will be very difficult to get Congress to agree to a Balkans deployment of American ground troops.
* Somalia and Haiti. The US pullout from Somalia will likely lead to an unsatisfactory resumption of chaos, resulting in further tough foreign-policy choices. Meanwhile, Haiti's military rulers remain unmoved by a US-led military embargo. They appear secure in the knowledge that Congress and the American public have little appetite for military intervention on their poor island.
* NATO and Eastern Europe. Poland, Hungary, and other former East-bloc nations are clamoring to join the security of the NATO club. The US and other current members have opted, so far, to keep the newcomers at arm's length. Nationalist gains in Russia will only complicate this delicate problem.
* The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Unlike NAFTA, GATT could engender opposition from key American industries, as well as unions. This could lead to a contentious congressional debate on GATT ratification.
* East Asia. Luring North Korea back into compliance with international safeguards against nuclear proliferation is one of the highest national-security concerns for the US. Enlisting the aid of China, Pyongyang's only friend, will be necessary for this effort. Yet Chinese-US relations are themselves at a crucial point. Without further progress on human rights in China, Congress will likely refuse to renew Beijing's most favored nation trading status.
* Russia. Clinton officials have long hailed staunch support for Russian President Boris Yeltsin as their biggest foreign-policy success. Now it is perhaps their most acute foreign-policy problem. The success of xenophobic nationalists in Russian elections and the country's evident need for infusions of cash are likely to clash with Congress's long-standing distaste for sending foreign aid anywhere.
The White House claims that on big foreign-policy problems its record has not been bad. Russia has been dealt with as adroitly as can be expected; a trade framework with Japan has received close attention; and the dangerous deterioration in US-Chinese relations has been halted, at least for the time being.
Economic issues have been pushed to the foreign-policy forefront, through such actions as support for NAFTA, GATT, and the Asia-Pacific economic conference in Seattle.
``I think this has been a good year for American foreign policy,'' Secretary of State Warren Christopher said last week.
Still, in Washington, the Clinton foreign-policy team's first-year performance has not received glowing reviews.
``A sense of confusion about defining and pursuing centrally important national interests is the most troubling aspect of the Clinton foreign policy at the one-year mark,'' writes former Bush official Paul Wolfowitz, dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, in the current issue of Foreign Affairs magazine.
Aside from the NAFTA debate, President Clinton seems unwilling to personally rally the country as a whole to foreign-policy goals and appears to be shifting responsibility toward subordinates, Mr. Wolfowitz charges.
The use of force cannot be approached experimentally, as it appears to have been in the cases of Somalia and Haiti, Wolfowitz says. He also faults the Clinton White House for falling into the twin traps of too much reliance on multilateral institutions and peacekeeping efforts. The former results in bland policy by international committee; the latter prevents the US from choosing between victims and aggressors in regional conflicts.