IN his desk at the State Department, where he presided during the early years of the cold war, Secretary of State Dean Acheson had three boxes, according to one biographer. One was marked ``IN.'' One was marked ``OUT.'' The third was marked ``TOO HARD.''
Nearly half a century later, as the United States plots its course in the post-cold-war era, the ``TOO HARD'' box seems to be fuller than ever.
Critics of the Clinton administration say the proliferation of unresolved foreign problems now facing the US, from North Korea to Haiti, has a simple explanation: mismanagement, a lack of vision, and the inattention of an inexperienced president who is more interested in domestic matters than events abroad.
But one of the chief architects of President Clinton's foreign policy disagrees. In a Monitor interview, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake insists that it's simply harder to make foreign policy today than it has ever been before - harder for reasons that also bedeviled the Bush administration as it tried to frame coherent responses to crises in places like Bosnia and Ethiopia.
``In many respects we face the same challenge that we did in the 1940s - building new policies in a new world - but the domestic politics of it is more like the 1920s,'' Mr. Lake says of the awkward circumstances that now confront US policymakers.
Following World War I, isolationism at home prevented the US from playing an active role abroad. Following the cold war, the public mood now is not isolationist but is more hesitant about engagement abroad. With no clear threat like the Soviet Union, with no counterpart to the broad strategy of containing Soviet expansion, and with no single theme to describe a foreign policy that has necessarily become more ad hoc - all advantages enjoyed during the cold war era - it has become far harder to define US policy, to explain it to the public, and to galvanize support for it at home, Lake says.
``We've come through 50 years of what was unusual in American history, and that was a clear consensus behind policies of engagement in the world,'' says the soft-spoken former professor. ``More traditionally, throughout our history there has been a basic argument about how deeply America should be engaged, and I think we're getting back into that now.''
Lake says policymakers are now forced to operate in the absence of public agreement that any challenge from abroad is worth American casualties or the investment of resources to pay for foreign aid or peacekeeping ventures. Even if there were such a consensus, domestic budget deficits, which have weakened the US's relative economic position, have reduced the ability of the US to act as a great power on the world stage.
``Today's dangers are diffuse and they come in many different sizes and shapes, and there's no single one whose solution is the silver bullet that would help solve all the others,'' Lake says. ``And that's much more complicated.''
Beyond the restrictive domestic environment is the utter complexity of the events abroad, where even good news can complicate the job of Western policymakers. The good news is that democracy is spreading. But even as governments have become more responsive, their authority has been weakened by the globalization of the world economy. The unintended result: the weakening of regimes and rise of protectionism, trends that militate against global order and are largely beyond the ability of the Western powers to shape.
Order is also jeopardized by old security threats that now stand out in sharper relief in the more fragmented post-cold-war international environment, Lake says. These include longstanding regional tensions, like those on the Korean peninsula, and the twin threats of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism.
No less worrisome is the lethal interaction of rapid population growth, economic stagnation, political instability, and environmental degradation, inflaming old ethnic hatreds in the former Soviet bloc and Africa and creating agonizing dilemmas for US policymakers.
``It is the phenomenon of nations that are tearing themselves apart that is the most difficult terrain of the post-cold-war era,'' Lake says. ``It forces the question: What does the international community do - what do we do - about conflicts that are taking place within nations rather than among them?''
Like countless other foreign- policy experts, Lake points to another factor that has vastly complicated the job of making foreign policy: television. The steady stream of news reports emanating from CNN and other media outlets plays a useful role in keeping the public informed of world events, Lake acknowledges. But he says it comes at a high cost for policymakers entrusted with the job of fashioning prudent responses.
One problem is that television conveys such powerful images that it can actually influence the agenda of United States foreign policy.
Graphic coverage of famine in Somalia, for example, put enormous pressure on the Bush administration to intervene. Once US troops were dispatched, equally graphic images of American casualties and of US aid shipments being pilfered and wasted produced an opposite reaction, putting pressure on the Clinton administration to withdraw.
``There's a danger here of alternating between desires to solve every problem because we see every problem, or recoiling in horror at the dimensions of problems and our inability to solve them all,'' Lake says.
When Americans see coverage of famine, disasters, or turmoil abroad, policymakers are asked, ``Why haven't you taken care of everything that's going on, since we are a superpower?'' When the US does intervene and casualties are incurred, people ask, ``Why are we engaged here? The world is too dangerous. Let's back out of it.'' Such alternating impulses, Lake says, make it harder for policymakers to steer a steady course.
IN addition to influencing the agenda of foreign policy, instant global television puts policymakers under intense pressure to come up with instant responses to breaking events.
Lake notes that he often gets breaking foreign news from CNN before it makes it upstairs from the ``situation room'' located on the floor below his West Wing White House office. Almost instantly, foreign-policy experts are on the air commenting in near real-time. Fifteen minutes after news of a coup, terrorist incident, or some other grave event is broadcast, reporters are shouting questions to the president and secretary of state, asking how the administration will respond.
``If you don't have an immediate response, it appears that the administration is evasive or incompetent,'' Lake says. ``If you do respond immediately, before having all the facts, there's a big possibility of mistakes.''
Foreign-policy experts have noted that if the Kennedy administration had been under such pressures during the Cuban missile crisis, the luxury of 13 days of quiet deliberation would have been out of the question, vastly increasing the risks of nuclear war.
Global television complicates policymaking in another, less obvious way, Lake notes. As the number of cable channels grows, administration officials have to spend more time explaining and defending their policies on the proliferating number of news and talk shows.
``The growth in commentary is going to continue to outstrip the ability of any administration to deal with it,'' Lake says.