President Clinton moves toward his second term having already approved U.S. military involvement in two areas where U.S. interests are at best only marginally affected. In Bosnia, he has agreed to keep taking part in NATO operations to try to maintain peace in a land riven by ethnic discord. In Zaire, he has decided to contribute to an international effort to save from possible starvation hundreds of thousands of refugees from neighboring Rwanda. These are intended to be missions of limited duration and scope, and should be. Elsewhere, though, Clinton and his new national security team face challenges that much more directly affect American interests.
Begin in Asia, where the president will soon confer with many of the region's leaders at a meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. Washington's most pressing worry is not with Asia's economically advanced nations--though thorny trade and investment issues impend with some--but with one of its poorest and most regressive states. North Korea, its stability in doubt after years of agricultural disasters and its internal politics in the post-Kim Il Sung era still unsettled, continues to pursue a bizarrely adventurist foreign policy, notably against South Korea. A top U.S. priority is to deter North Korea from developing nuclear weapons. It must also remain a priority to deny Pyongyang any success in its unremitting efforts to divide the United States from its South Korean ally.
China also faces a period of uncertainty and possible policy reorientation as a post-Deng Xiaoping succession struggle takes shape. Beijing has set a course that has given the country one of the world's most energetic economies. But China's leaders have not modified their insistence on maintaining iron control over political life, and they have been merciless in dealing with dissent.
Russia, by contrast, has become a vastly more open society where democracy, if not yet deeply rooted, finds ready expression at the ballot box. But President Boris Yeltsin's uncertain health, the parliamentary strength of Communists and ultranationalists, great and growing economic disparities and an epidemic of criminality all cast a somber shadow over Russia's future, including its relations with the West.
However insistently the West denies it, it's that doubt that prompts the move to open NATO membership to a number of former Warsaw Pact states. Clinton and congressional Republicans agree that Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic should be brought into NATO. But this consensus has so far left undebated two fundamental questions: Just how does the United States benefit by extending its nuclear security guarantee eastward in Europe, and who will pay the huge cost--ultimately tens of billions of dollars--to integrate East European armies into NATO? These too-long-ignored issues must be addressed.
Clinton of course doesn't have to look as far as Europe or Asia to find potential instability. While Mexico at last seems to be moving toward a true pluralistic political system, it is also paying the bill for generations of corrupt one-party rule. Necessary economic retrenchment has depressed living standards for tens of millions. Crime and anti-government violence in several states have undercut security. Washington's ability to influence developments in Mexico is limited, but what happens there seems certain to have perhaps far-reaching consequences in the United States.
Clinton and his national security team, then, have a full foreign policy agenda before them, heavy with the prospect of hard choices to be made. Foreign policy issues were all but ignored in the presidential campaign. Now they are becoming unavoidable.