Foreign policy is moving high on President Clinton's agenda. Today's talks on NATO enlargement in Helsinki with Russian President Boris Yeltsin mark the start of a heavy itinerary of travel abroad.
Mr. Clinton will be making four more forays outside the United States between now and July - a considerable load for a president who has mainly focused on domestic issues.
The coming trips - two to both Latin America and Europe - offer Clinton the chance to boost and test his foreign policy themes. Chief among them: promoting American investments abroad, enhancing US security by strengthening ties with other democracies, and forging coalitions to fight global problems like drug trafficking and terrorism.
The trips, which have been planned for months, will also provide escapes from the current pressure cooker of domestic politics and the storm over questionable fund-raising for his 1996 reelection campaign.
But even amid the red-carpet welcomes, paean-filled toasts, and sightseeing excursions, Clinton won't be exempt from tough discussions on US foreign and trade policies and far-reaching decisions on US security and economic health.
Some critics muse that Clinton's at-home troubles sap his credibility and make him less able to cajole and persuade America's friends and neighbors.
Others, however, dismiss this point. "We have to remember that other people take our 'scandals' much less seriously than we do," notes Peter Hill, a professor at George Washington University in Washington. "I don't think a president is hindered in any way from conducting foreign policy by what is going on at home," he says.
After the Helsinki summit, Clinton, accompanied by his wife, will go next month to Mexico.
Mrs. Clinton and daughter, Chelsea, are supplementing the president's foreign focus with a tour of Africa. And Vice President Al Gore plans to visit Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo next week.
A run for the border
The coming Mexico trip underscores Clinton's efforts to build closer relations with America's third-largest trading partner. With the two nations sharing a 2,000-mile-long border and cultural, historic, and commercial ties, he believes the US has enormous stakes in Mexico's political and economic stability.
Clinton is expected to defend the drug-fighting efforts of Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Len. But he will also almost certainly press his host to improve cooperation with US counter-narcotics programs to satisfy a US Congress that does not believe Mexico has done enough to contain trafficking and drug-related corruption.
Clinton reached an accord this week with lawmakers under which the Senate will pass a resolution criticizing Mr. Zedillo's antidrug efforts. But it will not override the president's certification of Mexico as an ally in the fight against narcotics, sparing it humiliating economic sanctions.
Another major issue will be Mexico's economy, which the US helped rescue from collapse with a $20-billion loan in 1995. Zedillo has repaid the loan and restored fiscal stability. But a growing rich-poor gap is helping fuel corruption and political instability.
The two leaders are expected to take stock of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, which calls on the US, Mexico, and Canada to phase out all trade barriers within 15 years.
Fun in the sun?
Free trade will also figure prominently when Clinton makes his first official visit to the Caribbean and South America several weeks after returning from Mexico. A 1994 Summit of the Americas held in Miami calls for the establishment of a hemisphere-wide free trade zone by 2005.
The trip to Barbados, Costa Rica, Brazil, Argentina, and Venezuela is aimed at celebrating the spread of democracy and economic reforms to all of the region's countries, save Cuba. But Clinton can expect to face concerns over American economic domination and lingering suspicions of the US stemming from its history of backing right-wing dictatorships.
"The main threat to Latin American countries has been the US attempting to impose its will," says Louis Goodman, an expert on the region at American University in Washington. "It's something that appears to have changed with the end of the cold war ... but views of history don't change instantaneously."
Returning to Europe
In May, Clinton is to attend a summit with European Community leaders in Amsterdam that will focus on trade issues. The meeting will coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Marshall Plan, the United States initiative that helped finance the rebuilding of Western Europe after World War II.
But unless resolved in ongoing negotiations, the meeting could be overshadowed by a feud over a US law allowing lawsuits to be filed in US courts against foreign firms investing in properties seized by Cuba from Americans after the 1959 revolution.
Clinton returns to Europe in June for a two-day summit in Madrid, at which the 16-member North Atlantic Treaty Organization is to open its doors to states from former communist Eastern Europe. The US says NATO expansion will proceed regardless of whether a new relationship can be worked out with Russia that satisfies Moscow's security concerns.
NATO expansion is shaping up as the most sweeping foreign policy initiative of Clinton's second term. But it also threatens to undermine what had been warming US-Russia relations.