To a large extent, the world sets the agenda for an American secretary of state. But Madeleine Albright has made it clear she hopes to get a jump on the world in such matters as human rights and new security arrangements in Europe.
She also made it clear in her confirmation hearings that she won't hesitate to publicly defend US diplomacy against all comers - including those in Congress who seem determined to squeeze the State Department's budget even lower than its current 1 percent of federal spending.
On all these fronts, we applaud the new secretary's pluck and hope her cordial reception by such potential antagonists as Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, signals progress. American interests are not served by shuttered embassies and consulates - some 30 have been closed in recent years - or by continued withholding of United Nations dues.
Mrs. Albright is singularly fit to break the logjam on the latter issue. Having completed four years as UN ambassador, she knows the organization's considerable problems and its promise. One measure of her effectiveness as the top US diplomat will be her ability to build a fresh case for the usefulness of the world body to American interests.
Those interests are more diverse, and harder to delimit, than ever. Security concerns, forged by this century's worst conflicts, dictate a sustained commitment to Europe's defense. But defense against what? Russia is no longer the looming threat it once was; moreover, its sensitivities have to be taken into account in the planned expansion of NATO. Any new security alignment on the Continent should encourage Russia's slow democratization, not fuel a retrogressive Russian nationalism.
US security interests also dictate great sensitivity in dealing with that other giant of the East, China. Mushrooming trade and commercial relationships have drawn China and the US into ever closer contact. The conflicts arising in those realms - such as piracy of American "intellectual property" - can be dealt with through bilateral and international structures. Deeper problems lie in the two countries' contrasting views of human rights and political freedom.
For the current generation of Chinese leaders, rights start with the collective, the people as embodied by the state. Individual freedom, the surest engine of progress, will dawn slowly on China. Secretary Albright will guide US policy toward China during an intense period, with Hong Kong's return to Beijing's control, explosive Chinese economic growth, and independence stirrings in Taiwan.
Other concerns facing Albright can be spun out in rough order of urgency: sustaining the Mideast peace process, bringing about a lasting solution in Bosnia, helping stabilize Central Africa, tending to relationships in the Americas, starting with Mexico. Then there are the wild cards, like the tensions between Turkey and Greece over Cyprus.
Any list, of course, is incomplete. The world will have its say on additions and subtractions.