WASHINGTON -- There is always a lot of mumbo jumbo written about foreign policy. Because it is a relatively arcane business, laymen -- including those in the press -- tend to invest it with more weight than it often deserves.
That has never been clearer than in the high marks President Clinton has been receiving for his "performance" at the Vancouver summit meeting with Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Clinton, the foreign policy neophyte, managed to conduct himself without falling into the punch bowl, so the story becomes oh, the wonder of it all.
In fact, aside from the development of a personal relationship between Yeltsin and Clinton, there was nothing substantive accomplished at Vancouver that might not have been done at the foreign secretary level. This was not a negotiation between international equals, nor was it a summit in which the national security was involved in any immediate sense.
But summits also are about perceptions, and for both Clinton and Yeltsin the atmospherics and hoopla were just as important as they are in domestic politics. Yeltsin has now been paid proper respect by the leader of the only standing superpower; Clinton has demonstrated that he can succeed George Bush without missing a beat.
For Clinton, the real test on foreign policy still lies ahead -- persuading the American people that they have enough of a stake in Russia's political stability to spend money on it at a time when the voters have been increasingly focused on their own problems at home.
At Vancouver, the president was sustained by the fact he was able to put together that $1.6 billion program of aid to Russia without requiring any congressional action. Thus, to the extent there is any political backlash, Clinton alone must bear it. The operative question in the end is whether he can enlist Congress when there is new money required, probably in the coming fiscal year.
Clinton does have some cover and some important allies. The cover will come from a likely decision of the Group of Seven industrial nations when they meet in Japan later this spring to cobble together a multilateral package of help for Russia -- a move that will allow Clinton to present further aid as a requirement for the United States to maintain its leadership in the world community.
The president's allies are important because they cut across the usual political lines. A program to aid Russia has been endorsed by all five living former presidents, four of them Republicans, and by Republican congressional leaders. The prospect is that the hard line against any further aid will be taken only by the neo-isolationists on the extremes in both political parties.
That broad support does not mean, however, that aid for Russia will not be a tough vote for many in both parties in Congress.
Opinion polls show a clear majority of voters who oppose the foreign aid program in general and an even larger group opposed to helping those who were our blood enemies only five years ago.
Given that context, the political responsibility that falls on the president is one of providing the leadership to make the case for those tough votes. And Clinton's ability to do that may depend on how other issues develop at the same time, as well as on the state of the domestic economy and concern at home about jobs and the future.
At the moment, Clinton has some obvious problems with Congress that will not be affected by his success at Vancouver. The first clearly is finding a solution to the deadlock in the Senate over his stimulus package that also can be sold to the House of Representatives, where they swallowed the Clinton plan in one gulp.
Then, just over the horizon, there is the prospect of a prolonged series of extremely difficult negotiations over Clinton's program to reform the health-care system. The final solution on health care may not be possible until sometime next year, but it is already clear that the president will have to spend more of his political capital to make it happen under any timetable.
The bottom line is that the Vancouver summit was a political success for the new president if only because it demonstrated he has the ability to play at that level of world politics. But, as George Bush learned the hard way, domestic politics can be much trickier.