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Foreign Policy Beyond Campaign Mush

In last week's "debate" between the two US presidential candidates, there was only one reference to foreign policy - a muddled question about sending American troops to the West Bank and Israel, and a mushy response from both candidates.

It is unfortunate that the next president's views on foreign affairs are getting such scant attention. For whether it be President Clinton or Bob Dole in the White House, the next four years are going to see extraordinary change in the world and major challenges for the United States.

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There is a very good chance that both Russia and China, two countries of immense importance to the US, will have acquired new leadership. There is a fair chance that Fidel Castro will have relinquished, or been driven from, his grip on Cuba. There is a good possibility that Nelson Mandela, the stabilizing factor in South Africa, will have been succeeded by political heirs.

Meanwhile, the new US president will be wrestling with the struggle for peace in the Middle East; conflict and unarrested war criminals in Bosnia; Hong Kong's submission to Chinese communist rule; troublesome regimes in North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Libya, and Burma (also known as Myanmar); delicate relations with Japan; an expanding NATO; a shrinking UN; not to mention nuclear proliferation and international terrorism.

Russia's lion in winter

Though Russia is no longer a superpower and no longer adversarial, its instability as it forsakes its communist past without a clear vision of its future must be a principal US concern. President Boris Yeltsin, a political lion probably in the winter of his career, has fired as national security adviser his restless rival, Alexander Lebed. But General Lebed's departure by no means resolves the leadership question, nor the country's long-term direction. Lebed has some dangerously unsophisticated ideas, but as the man who ostensibly ended the Chechnyan war and who preaches a brand of nationalism that resonates with an audience yearning for a new Russian identity, he enjoys immense popularity.

Talks in Washington in the past few days both with visiting advisers to Mr. Yeltsin and with some of the most authoritative US experts on Russia, suggest that Lebed is far from finished. His peace in Chechnya will have to stick, and he will have to find backers both financial and political, but as Gorbachev's firing of Yeltsin ultimately elevated the latter, so Yeltsin's firing of Lebed could ultimately elevate Lebed. One must hope that US diplomats are discreetly cultivating Lebed, and educating him out of his more bizarre ideas, against the possibility that he may yet rule Russia.

The way Russia goes is critical to Europe. It has considerable bearing too on events in the Middle East and the continued flow of Arab oil to the West. If Russia is not the power it once was, it can still hinder, obstruct, spoil.

If change in Russia may affect Europe and the Middle East, change in China will surely affect the course of events in Asia. Deng Xiaoping's departure from the scene will bring to a head the struggle for the succession that is already under way. New leadership in Beijing will decide whether China's relationship with Japan will be contentious or not; how amicable will be China's association with Taiwan; and how harshly Beijing will deal with Hong Kong, which becomes part of China next year. A new US president must find a formula for engaging with China, while deploring its internal and external excesses.

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Cuba, while not of strategic consequence to the US, is nevertheless ripe for the kind of change that will challenge American diplomacy. Mr. Castro, a lonely relic of discredited communism, presides over a sagging economy and a restless populace. Violent upheaval in Cuba could send another wave of refugees flooding into the United States. More orderly transition would require deftness on Washington's part in dealing with a new regime perhaps not totally to its liking.

Africa has had little strategic value to the United States since the end of the cold war. It has paid the price in neglect by the US.

Facing up to Africa

But the world must ultimately face up to Africa's poverty and chaos. Some see South Africa, the continent's most industrialized nation, as the engine that might help drive development in the rest of Africa. But South Africa is beset by crime, and the unfulfilled economic expectations of its own black majority. South Africa's own direction will be a question mark once the charismatic Mr. Mandela is no longer on the political scene.

These and the other problem areas already cited suggest a bumpy path in foreign affairs for the next president of the United States. America's national interest may require it to project military power - sometimes unilaterally, sometimes in concert with other nations. America's global responsibilities require it to work for the freedom and economic well-being of others. The two are not contradictory. Nations that are democratic and prospering are rarely those that create the wars and conflict that often challenge US interests.

*John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, has also been US assistant secretary of state and assistant secretary-general of the United Nations.

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