REMINISCENT of early explorers who believed the earth was flat, President Clinton came into office with the idea that he could concentrate on domestic policy and largely ignore something called foreign policy.
From the earliest days of his campaign, he focused on a well-developed and sharply articulated social and economic strategy for the United States; references to the rest of the world were episodic, brief, and without underlying principles. He organized his government and concentrated first on filling the key ``domestic'' jobs and giving the appointees an aggressive reform mandate, then belatedly filled out his national security team with officials whose prime task seemed and still seems to be damage limitation. And he has governed with a clear relish for issues like health care and welfare reform and an even clearer distaste for recurrent problems in distant corners of the globe for which the US, the sole superpower, has no answer or appetite.
In the real world, the distinctions underlying the president's world view no longer exist. The globalization of communications and of capital have eroded - if not yet fully erased - the old notion that as a continental-sized country with secure borders, the US was uniquely free to conduct foreign policy removed from and sometimes at odds with its domestic policy. Today, a coup attempt in Russia or an assassination in Mexico rattles investors and drives up US interest rates. Simultaneous trade conflicts with Japan and China, in part over how those two countries choose to govern themselves, endanger billions of dollars in US exports. This, in turn, threatens an untold number of jobs in the US. Weakness and inconsistency on Haiti, observed in Pyongyang, risk war on the Korean peninsula - which would surely terrify the New York stock and bond markets. The interconnections are endless, and endlessly threatening to a country whose president fails to understand them.
Mexico is one of the few countries that has benefited from the Clinton presidency. President Bush proposed and largely negotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement, but Mr. Clinton worked furiously for its passage. Clinton has supported Mexico during the past months, not only by enlarging and formalizing credit facilities to support the peso, but, more importantly, by reining in the usual interventionist tendencies of the American bureaucracy. And under the Clinton administration, the bilateral dialogue between the countries' Cabinets has become increasingly productive.
This anomaly has an explanation: To a considerable degree the relationship between the US and Mexico has come to be defined as a domestic issue in the US. The NAFTA debate was primarily about jobs and investments, not traditionally the focus of the foreign-policy establishment. The debate engaged workers, union leaders, businesspeople, investors, and politicians whose attention rarely strayed beyond their immediate constituencies. Many, if not most, Americans instinctively understood that their future was inevitably intertwined with Mexico's. The debate's intensity testified to its seriousness: Americans, if not necessarily their president, recognized the seamless web linking foreign and domestic policy.
IT is not too late for Clinton to apply the lesson from NAFTA's passage to the rest of his presidency. To do so he must recognize the extent to which the US is effectively and permanently integrated into the world economy. Foreign policy is made by economists in the Treasury and Labor Departments as much as by diplomats in the State Department. How the US solves its trade problems with China is at least as important to the future welfare of many American workers as how politicians deal with demands for universal health care. If Clinton is to succeed, he must grasp this economic and political reality. Otherwise, his early failures will be compounded, and the US - but not only the US - will suffer. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles 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.