THE Republican ``Contract With America'' has only one section dealing with foreign affairs - and it concentrates on the military. Proposal No. 6, the National Security Restoration Act, cites as its objective to ``maintain our credibility around the world'' primarily by going it alone (no United States troops under United Nations command) and by increasing defense spending.
To the contract's drafters, credibility presumably means that, if their recommendations are followed, Washington need only declare its intention and other nations, aware of the Pentagon's reach and power, will quickly follow.
But credibility connotes more than power; it suggests respect and reliability as well. Any respect from some, generated by a firm insistence that the US must be in charge in any UN action or it will not participate, would be balanced by the anger of others. Even those who wish for US leadership would find it difficult to support a position that many would regard as arrogant.
A strengthened military posture still designed to fight a major nuclear war adds little to credibility if accompanied by a national reluctance to use the US military to meet current problems. At the same time that Republican leaders are suggesting increased defense spending, some in their party are demanding the early withdrawal of US forces from Haiti and expressing general opposition to US military participation in peacekeeping activities.
Credibility is related to expectations. Other nations have come to expect the US, with its substantial power, to play a significant role in world affairs. At times those expectations have been unrealistic. If the US minimizes its world role, a decline in respect and influence is inevitable.
It is true that US credibility has suffered in recent years. The Clinton administration has vacillated, leaving much of the world in doubt regarding the US positions on key issues, among them Somalia, Bosnia, North Korea, and Haiti. In part this has come about through an excess of rhetoric. Although some ambiguity in official statements is inevitable, high-level declarations should be carefully crafted, sparingly used, and as consistent as possible.
Whatever the effort, the US will find that its word will never be fully accepted or believed in all parts of the world. The parties to a conflict will look to Washington for support and be unhappy when the US equivocates or appears to tilt to one side. At the same time, suspicions of Washington's motives continue to abound in many parts of the world.
The new Republican Congress must address the issue of the nation's strategic posture and relationships to the rest of the world.
Numerous issues will require attention. Normal authorization and appropriations procedures will raise questions of the future role of the defense establishment, the levels of US diplomatic activities abroad, and the future of foreign aid. The Senate must decide whether to give advice and consent to major treaties on the law of the sea and biodiversity. Such decisions will determine whether the world sees the US as a partner or a bystander.
The US remains the strongest nation in the world, economically and militarily. But in the absence of responsible involvement, strength alone brings neither respect nor influence.
This means not turning aside from cooperation with the UN, even when at times US forces may be subordinated to others. It means accepting international obligations, even if agreements are not 100 percent to US liking. It means a sophisticated understanding of the issues that threaten US interests and world peace.