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At the U.N., Clinton Does His Nixon Act : Work with peace-seekers, as in the Mideast, but shun bloody and unrepentant civil warriors.

<i> Robert Scheer is a former national correspondent for The Times. </i>

Richard Nixon was right.

That was him speaking on Monday when Bill Clinton lectured the United Nations about lowered expectations and the United States not going it alone. It’s a sign, one hopes, that America will move back from the adventurism and meddling in the histories of other peoples that marked the Carter-Reagan-Bush years.

Clinton’s message was blunt: Close the books and cut the losses. The same as the Nixon doctrine of 22 years ago.

Few remember those words of wisdom from the former President who was--quirky personal habits, red-baiting youth and Watergate shenanigans aside--a prudent man of the center. The unique economic power bestowed on the United States through victory in World War II, allowing for unprecedented prosperity and influence, had inevitably given way to a messy, multipolar world. Nixon enjoyed the Cold War, both professionally and personally, but he knew its time was over.

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“This Administration must lead the nation through a fundamental transition in foreign policy . . . We are at the end of an era. The postwar order of international relations--the configuration of power that emerged from the Second World War, is gone.” Nixon added: “In the era of American predominance, we resorted to American prescriptions as well as resources. In the new era, our friends are revitalized and increasingly self-reliant, while the American domestic consensus has been strained by 25 years of global responsibilities.”

That’s what Clinton was telling the United Nations the other day. He said the United States wanted to be a player, but not the major player. But he moved the play considerably beyond what Nixon and Henry Kissinger had attempted. Their idea was to negotiate new zones of stability in partnership with the Chinese and Soviets. It failed because the communist powers couldn’t control the various nationalist movements that we claimed were under their control. After Nixon/Kissinger, Jimmy Carter and Zbigniew Brzezinski emphasized trilateral agreements with Western Europe and Japan to reorder the world, to which Carter and Cyrus Vance added the human-rights focus. Aside from the endemic, schizoid confusion of the Carter years, our capitalist partners were too busy doing business everywhere to worry about human rights or world order.

Ronald Reagan and George Bush went into denial on the emerging end of the Cold War. In desperation, they tried simply turning the clock back to a time when unity of purpose was provided by a communist enemy that was internationalist, aggressive and monolithic. Then, unfortunately for Bush, just when they were most needed, the Soviet communists abruptly let go of the tug-of-war rope.

This is the quandary that Clinton inherited. How do you make sense out of foreign policy without anti-communism as a unifying force? The answer provided by the first months of his Administration is quite obvious: Forget foreign policy and concentrate almost exclusively on the domestic agenda. When this insularity becomes embarrassing, relate to the world as if the U.S. government is a reluctant maitre d’ presiding over a regrettably unruly world club. Members of this club may occasionally duke each other out, but as Bosnia policy indicates, maitre d’s do not get involved. Predictably, engineering a handshake represents Clinton’s finest hour.

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Clinton is right to hold back. Seize the moments for aiding those, like the Palestinians and Israelis, who genuinely want to make up. But when the world’s myriad enemies are still going at it, avoid taking sides. There’s nothing but trouble in busting up fratricidal fights. Look at Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia, Somalia, Georgia and Azerbaijan--no-win situations because some people, for nationalist, religious or other reasons, actually want to fight.

Of course, something needs to be done to aid innocent victims caught up in civil strife, drought, famine and mad bouts of genocide. But how do you do that without making matters worse? The key, the President told the United Nations, is to know when to get in and when to get out. However, in Somalia he also showed how easy it is to miss the line turning a successful humanitarian mission into a bloody political vendetta.

Are nation-states to be entrusted with ensuring global peace when their prior records are so rotten? Clinton seemed to answer in the negative and called instead for a permanent but very cautious U.N. world cop. Not bad for a start. Clinton has simultaneously lowered expectations for the new world order while stoking the almost dormant fires of the one-worlder’s dream. I know this isn’t exactly what Nixon had in mind, but it may be, in the new era he spoke about, all we’ve got.


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