Clinton, world leaders grope for new order as Cold War certainties fade

July 10, 1994|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun Staff Correspondent

NAPLES, Italy -- The 300-year-old Royal Palace, where leaders of the world's richest nations are meeting this weekend, gives the global talks a certain aura of stability.

But nothing could be further from the truth.

Instead, it is the disorder of world affairs that jolted President Clinton and the other leaders yesterday, as they learned of the untimely death of North Korea's Kim Il Sung.

The Communist dictator's unexpected death not only highlights the instability of the post-Cold War world, but in the short range, at least, it threatens to deepen it. Administration officials all but admit they have no idea what the immediate future holds for the Korean Peninsula, perhaps the least stable part of the globe over the past 40 years.

North Korea's isolation has cut it off from precisely the sort of intimate discussions taking place here, leaving the U.S. government in the dark about what is to come after the Kim regime and whether it will be possible, short of war, to stop North Korea from becoming a nuclear bomb merchant.

The difficulties Mr. Clinton and his advisers face in coping with this challenge were apparent in the hours following the news of Mr. Kim's death. For example, the president's national security adviser, Anthony Lake, turned to perhaps the best diplomatic channel available -- Cable News Network -- to tell whoever might be in charge in Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, that U.S. military forces in South Korea hadn't ratcheted up to a higher stateof readiness.

As Mr. Clinton has been reminded repeatedly during his current tour of Europe, the world is searching for leadership in this uncertain period -- and hoping that the United States, as the only superpower, will provide it. That was pointed up again yesterday when Mr. Clinton was asked about his private conversations with the other leaders about the Korean situation.

"What they wanted to know from me was what happens now," said Mr. Clinton, who gave a clear indication that he knew nothing more, at the moment, than what his aides could learn from news reports out of Asia.

Deflecting attention

In a perverse way, Mr. Kim's passing was a sorely needed stroke PTC of good luck for Mr. Clinton. By grabbing the headlines and a top spot on the TV news, it helped deflect attention from the losing streak the president seems to be running up in the global perceptions game, an increasingly important contest in this day of instantaneous communications. (Viewers of CNN and other 24-hour news outlets learned of Mr. Kim's death before Mr. Clinton did.)

As the past few days have again made clear, Mr. Clinton has yet to demonstrate the sort of mastery of geopolitics that he has shown on the domestic front, in spite of devoting an increasing amount of time to foreign policy. Though he has not made any obvious missteps on his latest European tour, his third in six months, it appears that he will not get the sort of boost to his reputationthat he and his advisers would have liked.

Mr. Clinton was set back sharply yesterday when his last-minute proposal for a new round of free trade talks was shot down by France, which warned that such a move could endanger final approval of another world trade pact completed last year.

On Friday, financial markets drove down an already weak U.S. dollar in direct response to comments by Mr. Clinton that he would not encourage moves to bolster the dollar. And before that, the administration's Haiti policy was dealt one more embarrassing blow, this time by Panama's president, who backed off a commitment to allow Haitian refugees into his country.

Although the recent shift of top White House aide David Gergen to the State Department is a tacit admission that the administration's foreign policy message lacks focus, Clinton advisers take issue with the widely expressed criticism of the United States' failure to provide a broad vision for the world, five years after the Berlin Wall came down.

Mr. Clinton himself has said that coming up with a coherent framework could take decades, now that there is no longer an immediate threat to global survival that could galvanize public opinion.

On the same day last week that he became the first U.S. president to visit the Baltic states, Mr. Clinton put an expert witness on the stand on his behalf: 90-year-old George Kennan, author of the "containment" strategy that guided the Western world for almost a half-century.

Speaking Wednesday to the U.S. Embassy staff in Riga, Latvia, the president read a letter he had received from Mr. Kennan, in which the retired diplomat compared the years after World War II to the current post-Cold War period.

During the late 1940s and early 1950s, "there was no lack of problems," Mr. Kennan wrote. But he went on to say, "Your official charge is obviously a far more extensive and complicated one than was ours."

High turnover

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