FIRST, we had the fiasco on the land-mine ban, and now Washington is playing a stick-in-the-mud role on global warming. All this, together with the continuing failure to pay our nation's long-overdue commitments to the United Nations.
Now another key issue in global governance has been put on the table, and policymakers in the administration and Congress have yet another opportunity to exercise some of the global leadership they all keep talking about. Will they support the very sensible recommendations made in the recent report of the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict - or will they sit back and allow the years ahead to be marked by repeated, unchecked outbreaks of Rwanda-type mass violence?
The commission has been headed by former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and former Carnegie Corporation head David Hamburg. Its two most important recommendations:
The UN Security Council should move quickly toward establishing a rapid-reaction force of some 5,000-10,000 troops. Also, national governments should support the UN secretary-general in moving toward setting up a permanent international criminal court.
Neither of these proposals is new, but both are extremely controversial in the United States, where the voices that clamor loudest are often those of fear-peddlers and provincial-minded chauvinists. There is even a name for this phenomenon: globalphobia.
But what exactly is happening here? Numerous studies have found that, in their homes and communities, Americans are actually far more supportive of global engagement (including paying our country's dues to the UN) than the globalphobes who claim to speak for them on the airwaves and in the halls of Congress.
This, surely, is a situation in which - if he wanted to - the president could use the power of his office to build a strong constituency for constructive change. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, with her proven persuasive capabilities, could play a big role, too.
The issue of preventing deadly violence cries out for global leadership. Since the end of the cold war, no fewer than 39 countries around the world have seen large-scale violence. Many of these outbreaks are plainly predictable. Scores of nongovernmental groups are working in the different hot spots. They and locally based diplomats can give faster reports of warning signs than ever before. But if governments have to negotiate the makeup of a new peace force every time, at the very last minute, too often the delay is fatal.
At the time of the Rwanda genocide in 1994, numerous experts judged that timely deployment of a force like that called for in the Carnegie Commission report could have prevented virtually all the 500,000 ethnic killings. But the Clinton administration was still reeling from the killing of American peacekeepers in Somalia and dragged its feet.
If the commission's advice is followed, national governments would be relieved of such last-minute political pressures because the UN would already have its force, or advanced planning for it, ready for action. And the force would remain under the Security Council's tight control, ensuring a continuing American veto over its deployment.
So what is preventing President Clinton from exercising leadership on this issue, and on the establishment of a permanent war-crimes court? If he does start to speak out for such proposals, the globalphobes will criticize him. They will crank up their well-worn complaints about dilution of American sovereignty, fear of a UN "invasion," etc.
But most Americans don't buy that line. If the Clinton and Albright team made the goal of preventing deadly mass conflict their own, they could help save scores of thousands of lives around the world. They could turn back the country's current trend toward isolationism and launch a new, nationwide upsurge for constructive global engagement.
Such outcomes should resonate with the most deeply held aspirations of this president and secretary of state. But will they step up to this plate? That remains to be seen.
* Helena Cobban writes on foreign affairs from Charlottesville, Va.