PARIS — Paris. -- The reputation of George Bush as maker of foreign policy and master of foreign affairs is both asset and handicap in his campaign for reelection. It is the thing he is supposed to be good at, but it also invites the accusation that he cares little for domestic matters -- and that the state of the economy and American society today shows it. His foreign policy reputation, however, is unjustified.
Mr. Bush is certainly experienced in foreign relations, which is not a small thing, and he clearly enjoys the statesman's role. But if he possesses any coherent conception of contemporary history and of how the United States should function in the world, he has given no evidence of this.
The ''New World Order'' proposed at the time of the Gulf War has proved, predictably, to have been no more than a speechwriter's phrase, a bow to the exhausted Wilsonian and Rooseveltian traditions of American internationalism. Nothing specific was actually proposed by Mr. Bush to change the way the world's business is conducted. To the extent that international society in the 1990s is different from the 1980s, the fall of communism is responsible.
The two great events of the Bush presidency have been the invasion of Panama and the rescue of Kuwait from Iraq. Both were unexpected decisions, the former even a capricious one. To invade a small country in order to ''arrest'' its leader and bring him to trial in the United States seemed even at the time an act of personal grudge or anger on Mr. Bush's part.
There was no substantial legal justification nor objective interest at stake worth invasion, war, and civilian casualties, which in proportion to Panama's minuscule population proved very high.
The Panama invasion was certainly no demonstration of Mr. Bush's mastery of international affairs, nor even, perhaps, of his mastery of himself. It set a very disquieting precedent. The armed forces of the United States are not supposed to be at the personal disposal of the president, for use as he pleases. The course of the subsequent trial in Miami of Panama's former President Manuel Antonio Noriega has contributed to the conclusion that this was a very strange adventure.
In contrast, the issues of international law and public interest were clear in the Kuwait case, as the U.N. Security Council's members and America's allies agreed. Yet here again there was an arbitrary quality to Mr. Bush's decisions. There was a lack of proportion in his responses and in his personalization of the conflict with Saddam Hussein, which produced the impression that American decisions were not being taken for totally rational reasons -- that something was slightly out of control in Washington.
Once again war was decided by the White House, acting alone, and the Senate was consulted only when the American commitment was complete and virtually irrevocable -- and it was reluctantly consulted even then.
On the other hand, what are we offered by the Democratic candidates, or by Pat Buchanan? Ignorance or naivete. All but Paul Tsongas claim that the economic difficulties of the United States today are due to its overgenerosity toward others (who are ''mainlining out of the Treasury,'' as Mr. Buchanan says of the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and foreigners generally).
America is supposed to get tough with them and its problems will be solved. This kind of argument, of course, makes George Bush sound good. At least it identifies him as in touch with the realities of America's foreign economic and political relationships.
Paul Tsongas served in the Peace Corps and says that his time in Africa changed his life. Bob Kerrey certainly had his life changed by the war in Vietnam. Mr. Tsongas and Gov. Kerrey know what a country not the United States looks and feels like, and they grasp something of the lives of poor peasants in backward countries.
That is a good start toward understanding that the rest of the world cannot be defined in the categories of the privileged American experience. However, such an understanding is not a policy, only a precondition for serious policy. Mr. Tsongas says rightly that the problems of the United States are home-grown and that solutions will be found only there. This is good sense about the United States, and indirectly about other countries; but his Democratic rivals seem to disagree.
All of this adds up to a better argument for American isolationism than any Pat Buchanan is using. If the country's political class knows so little and cares so little about the international system in which it functions, it may be that an American withdrawal from world engagement, a certain isolation of itself from political matters which interest neither the new generation of leaders nor a public preoccupied by domestic problems, is the better course for the country to take.
The internationalization of the American economy won't be halted, but breakdown of the GATT system seems increasingly likely, with the result of producing three more or less protectionist blocs, in the Americas, Asia and Europe. This is another reason to think isolationism plausible.
There is a great deal to be lost as a result. The outlook for Eastern Europe and the Soviet successor states becomes a great deal more difficult if the United States pulls back from Europe. There will be much more severe demands on political leadership in Europe and Japan, if peace and order are to be kept. The postwar system indeed will be over. But better that it ends rationally than that the United States becomes increasingly erratic and irresponsible in this world engagement its citizens no longer seem to want.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.