Almost everyone understands that George Bush has broad experience, knowledge and interest in foreign affairs. Moreover, in the Persian Gulf war he showed himself capable of decisive, effective leadership. Nevertheless, the president has a major foreign-policy problem. It is the same problem that affects other aspects of his administration -- that of failing to articulate goals.
Only rarely does Mr. Bush tell us what public purposes are being served by the foreign policies he adopts in our name. He does not explain, for example, what interests he intends to serve by protecting China's most-favored-nation status and trade privileges regardless of that country's human-rights abuses. Neither does he explain what overriding principle or interest causes him to veto the bill that would link trade and human rights, nor why he refuses to join other Western democracies in sponsoring a resolution in the U.N. Human Rights Commission that would address China's repression of Tibet.
There may be compelling reasons. Former Sen. Henry ''Scoop'' Jackson and former President Nixon, both foreign-policy heavyweights, believed there were overriding strategic interests in maintaining a ''cooperative'' relationship with the Chinese government. But in that time Cold War tensions made the ''China card'' necessary to a winning hand. Such strategic imperatives died with the Cold War.
Today, we don't want China to sell high-tech weapons to the Third World, further escalating human and environmental costs of war. We don't want to reward slave labor with our trade policies. We would like to reward political reform and encourage democracy -- because it would greatly improve personal security and freedom for the Chinese, and would contribute to peace and stability on China's borders. Democracies do not fight aggressive wars or sponsor such guerrilla groups as the Khmer Rouge.
U.S. policy toward China should obviously serve these public interests, unless there is some less apparent but more important purpose. In that case, the president should explain to the rest of us whatever it is that is so important, and how his policy serves the common good.
A parallel issue is raised by administration policy regarding Yugoslavia. With the Cold War over, there is no Soviet threat to the independence of Yugoslavia, and no reasonable chance that the Yugoslav spark could ignite a divided Europe.
Why then was America's national interest served by the administration's long refusal to recognize Croatia and Slovenia, a refusal that lasted for months after most of Europe had already done so?
Americans have no stake in the preservation of a Communist China or of Serbian hegemony in what was Yugoslavia. But we do have a major stake in encouraging civilized standards of respect for human rights, and peaceful settlements of the issues of ethnic separatism and nationalism. We have a major stake in democratic outcomes.
Are these merely problems in communication -- as the president is said to believe -- or are the problems the goals themselves?
I believe the major foreign-policy problems grow from the lack of a center of gravity, an ordering principle or goal that the administration is seeking to achieve. More specifically, they grow from the administration's failure to give adequate priority to the U.S. national interest in preserving democratic governments and extending democracy.
As with China and Yugoslavia, these problems can also be observed in the administration's inadequate support for democracy in Russia. Mr. Nixon wrote recently that the preservation of democracy in Russia should be the centerpiece of American foreign policy.
''If freedom fails in Russia, we will see the tide of freedom that has been sweeping over the world begin to ebb, and dictatorship rather than democracy will be the wave of the future,'' he said.
Mr. Nixon believes this is a ''watershed moment in history.'' Yet he thinks the West, including the U.S., has failed so far to give the necessary priority to preservation of Boris Yeltsin's democratic experiment. He does not doubt that a democratic Russia serves the public interest of America and says it is urgent to ''seize the moment.''
Russia, China and Yugoslavia are not the only arenas where American foreign policy suffers from a lack of articulated goals. The same questions can be raised about the Bush policy in the Middle East, where heavy pressure is brought against the only democracy in the area, the only absolutely reliable American ally.
In the Middle East, Mr. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker embrace the kind of linkage between assistance and foreign policy that they oppose for China. The decision to link loan guarantees for housing Soviet emigres to freezing settlements has already brought down one Israeli government.