IT HAS become commonplace to announce that the American public has lost interest in the rest of the world. That may change soon, and should. The American future has tipped a part of its hand. We may not know how everything will turn out in the post-Cold War world, but we can better sense what the argument will sound like.
Consider some recent situations: Environmentalists and bureaucrats assemble in Kyoto, Japan, to bleat about global warming. Congress rejects the idea of ''fast-track'' trade negotiation. The president announces -- surprise! -- that American troops are in Bosnia indefinitely. Saddam Hussein creates biological, chemical and nuclear weapons of mass destruction while the United Nations sucks its thumb. The United States, and other industrial nations, fork over $57 billion to bail out South Korea.
These situations are linked by a common theme: Each involves the possibility of American action in tight concert with other nations. This means America has less freedom to act alone. Two themes have emerged to guide our broad thinking: ''Go It Alone, Leave It Alone'' and ''We're Going Global, Ready or Not.'' Alas, neither works as a general theory.
Should America go it alone, leave it alone? It sounds good. But if we stay out of Bosnia, will we be partly responsible for a civil war in Europe, boding ill for global stability? If we don't participate in the Korean bailout, will financial institutions tumble like falling dominoes, crashing share prices and pension plans everywhere? we don't keep encouraging trade, will we diminish our ability to reap the benefits of trade?
Should America go global, ready or not? If we leave it to the global dither factory at the United Nations, will we wake up one morning and find out that Saddam Hussein has put anthrax in our Cheerios? If we sign on to the Kyoto deal and cut greenhouse energy use in America by 38 percent from today's levels -- will we be poorer but no healthier?
There are aspects of Go It Alone that make sense. Who wants to be pushed around by a bunch of foreigners? There are aspects of globalism that make sense. How can we lead the world if we don't participate in it?
The American political genius typically expresses itself eclectically, a dash of this, a pinch of that, in pursuit of a broader vision. Today, the challenge is to harness in tandem the views of the nationalists and the internationalists.
How? Start with a fact: America is unique in the history of the world. Our uniqueness means that there may be times when we have to make our own rules as we go along, by trial and probably error.
We have a point of view: that free politics and free markets are good for us, and good for all of God's children. By promoting such a view, we help ourselves by diminishing the possibility that people in the next century will suffer some of the tragic aspects of this century.
So we should look at issues case by case through a prism of enlightened nationalism. Do we help ourselves when we act globally? In Bosnia, probably yes. The costs are relatively small, and if it works out, we are much better off. The Asian bailouts decrease the possibility of global economic turmoil and make sense, provided bankers and investors get penalized for lack of prudence. ''Fast-track'' trade negotiating authority will help keep America in first place. On these matters, go global.
But the global warming issue is a first-class farce, based on dubious science. It may well be wise to gently cut back on fossil fuels, but not under the threat that if we don't, Minnesota will be assaulted by tropical diseases. We ought to get the global community to calm down on this one.
An opposite reaction should be our rule regarding Iraq. The nut with the mustache not only can kill millions of people, but also if he isn't straitjacketed, he will set a model for other despots. We ought to twist arms with gusto at the United Nations, and if that doesn't work, do it ourselves.
Other nations will resent our apparent all-powerful ability to write the rules if we must. But we've behaved judiciously, and they also know that if we don't act, they suffer.
Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Pub Date: 1/05/98