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When US Can't Do Everything, What Should It Do?

The post-cold-war world is not shaping up as we would like. On the contrary, it is unraveling.

Nuclear weapons are proliferating, as are chemical, bacteriological, and other weapons of mass destruction. India, Pakistan, North Korea, Iran, and Iraq have either acquired such weapons or are close to it. North Korea has helped some of the others with the export of components.

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Russia and China have also succumbed to the temptation to earn much needed hard currency through nuclear exports. Russia has a large supply of competent scientists and technicians - as well as custodians of nuclear weapons - whom it can no longer pay and who are ripe for offers of foreign employment and susceptible to offers for illegal sales. The Russian government may share United States nonproliferation views, but it isn't in firm control of its country.

Southeastern Europe is collapsing while NATO, the United Nations, and the US wring their hands. Belatedly, the political will was summoned to intervene in Bosnia; but after more than a year of military occupation, an election has returned to power some of the hard-line Serbs who wrecked the country in the first place. Meanwhile, the suffering and destruction have been transferred to Kosovo.

Large numbers of Africans seem unable to live in peace. Zaire/Congo is in the throes of its second civil war in two years. Tribal warfare has devastated Rwanda and Burundi. Angola and Liberia have ongoing civil wars: Angola despite numerous UN-brokered ceasefire agreements, Liberia despite the presence of a West African peacekeeping force.

A global domino effect is threatened by a series of economic problems that began last year in Thailand. Now Malaysia, Indonesia, South Korea, Japan, and Russia are in severe difficulties. Brazil and Mexico are wobbly. The International Monetary Fund, which is supposed to take care of these problems, is ineffective. Part of the IMF's problem is the refusal of a misguided Congress to provide the US share of its money. Part may be that it has never had to deal with problems quite like these simultaneously.

US credibility has taken some hard knocks. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright talked tough to Israel - get the Palestinian peace process going or else - but did not follow through. President Clinton talked tough to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein - permit UN inspection for prohibited weapons or else. When Saddam thumbed his nose, Mr. Clinton backed down. Given the unwillingness of the UN Security Council to enforce inspection, the US choice was between caving and going alone, but that doesn't soften the blow to US prestige.

A Congress that is internationally blind must be included among the things that are unraveling. It stubbornly refuses to pay international bills, notably US dues to the UN and the US quota in the IMF. It has not enacted implementing legislation for the Chemical Weapons Convention 18 months after the convention was approved by the Senate. Nor has the Senate even taken up the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, signed in 1996.

These and other disturbances of the world order started long before Clinton's current domestic difficulties. Some started even before his administration. None can be attributed to the distractions of l'affaire Lewinsky. But all of them call for rethinking well-established US policies, and the government is not now well positioned to do that.

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The collapse of the Soviet Union left the US adrift without a well-formulated, coherent foreign policy. In his speech to the UN last week, Clinton implied that he would like to substitute terrorism for the role that the Soviet Union once played. That would be a mistake. A foreign policy centered on counterterrorism would put out of focus other things that need doing. It would also destroy a good deal of the free and open qualities of American life that ought to be protected.

These matters need serious thought and wide public discussion. The US needs to reconsider its role in the world. it desperately needs a consensus on what it should do when it can't do everything.

The US political system assumes such matters will be decided by elections - coincidentally, there's an election in November Unfortunately, the worst effect of the president's follies is likely to be that this election will be decided on the wrong issues for the wrong reasons. When a more clear-headed Congress is needed, a more muddled-headed one is likely.

* Pat M. Holt, is a Washington writer on foreign affairs. He is the author of 'Invitation to Struggle: Congress, the President and Foreign Policy' ( Congressional Quarterly Press, 1992).

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