WASHINGTON -- All but abandoning hopes of major achievements at next week's summit of industrialized leaders in Tokyo, President Clinton plans instead to make increased U.S. engagement in Asia a centerpiece of his first trip overseas, officials say.
In speeches in San Francisco, Tokyo and Seoul, Mr. Clinton is expected to voice a determination both to expand trade with the world's most economically dynamic region and to maintain a security umbrella that would forestall a new regional arms race.
The effort to highlight U.S.-Asian relations offers a new opportunity for Mr. Clinton to demonstrate world leadership in the wake of his widely perceived failure to galvanize allies over the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Leaders in trouble
It also fills an obvious vacuum, since the politically beleaguered leaders of the world's largest industrial democracies -- known as the G-7 -- will have little to boast about.
Mr. Clinton's expected announcement today that the United States won't continue to block new International Monetary Fund financing for Vietnam is geared in part to increasing the United States' economic foothold in Asia, which has in recent years declined in relation to an explosion in inter-Asian trade.
A senior U.S. official, without saying so explicitly, clearly conveyed the hope that the U.S. public will draw a contrast with President George Bush's election-year Japan foray in the company of disgruntled American industrialists, a political failure symbolized by Mr. Bush's sudden and public illness at dinner with his hosts.
Mr. Clinton, they hope, will emerge from the trip with burnished credentials as a new-generation leader with a new agenda, reaching out to a region where key nations -- South Korea, Thailand and Taiwan -- have shed authoritarian systems.
But in laying out comprehensively his view of U.S.-Asian relations for the first time as president, Mr. Clinton may not be able to paper over existing strains, particularly in U.S.-Japanese relations.
Negotiators for the United States and Japan have failed to achieve a framework agreement in talks on opening Japanese markets to American goods.
And analysts say the president's and his aides' pointed comments have fueled Tokyo's belief that Mr. Clinton doesn't understand the Japanese.
Security called vital
His expected renewal of the United States' security pledge to Asian allies worried about North Korea and, potentially, China is a vital ingredient in opening the continent's markets to U.S. goods, says a congressional Asia specialist.
"Our ability to get them to move away from mercantilism will not be successful if we withdraw our security umbrella," the aide said.
The United States has security treaties with Japan, Thailand, South Korea and the Philippines, and a political commitment to Taiwan.
But one speech in Seoul is unlikely to erase Asian fears of a drawdown of U.S. forces in the region as the U.S. military establishment is reduced in size, this aide said.
Asian leaders will be watching closely whether Congress follows up on the president's commitment.
"These are smart people. They're not going to give a sigh of relief because someone tells them we're going to stay in Asia," he said.
The overriding current fear of the region's democracies -- that North Korea will become a nuclear power -- has yet to be fully assuaged.
While agreeing to stay within the international non-proliferation treaty, North Korea has refused so far to allow the kind of intrusive inspections that the International Atomic Energy Agency deems necessary. Mr. Clinton leaves Washington Monday on a minor political roll, buoyed by his decisive launch of a missile attack on Iraq last weekend and his success in getting his economic program narrowly passed by the Senate.
In contrast to past G-7 summits, the United States will be able to deflect criticism from its economic partners that it is not getting its deficit under control.
"When they look at macroeconomic policies . . . there won't be a lot of criticism of the United States," Barry Bosworth, a Brookings Institution senior fellow, said at a pre-summit briefing for reporters. "The Clinton administration has adopted an economic program that most other countries would like to see."
But Mr. Clinton continues to register the strongest disapproval ratings at this stage of any postwar U.S. presidency. In Tokyo next week, his political problems will be matched or exceeded by those of every other leader present, making bold decisions all but impossible.
Never in the 15-year history of Group of Seven summits have the assembled presidents and prime ministers all been as weak domestically, says a Brookings senior associate, Robert Solomon.
In trouble together
* Japan's prime minister, Kiichi Miyazawa, is a lame duck.
* German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, four years after uniting east and west, draws support from just 38 percent of his population, according to the latest German polls.
* The popularity ratings of Britain's John Major have fallen into the 20s.
* Canada's Kim Campbell has yet to face a national electorate.
* French President Francois Mitterrand is hobbled by an opposition government.
* And Italian Prime Minister Carlo Ciampi, 73, leads a country undergoing a political restructuring in the wake of major scandal.
Their economies in a stubborn worldwide slump, the leaders have been unable to achieve a breakthrough in the Uruguay Round of world trade talks. Their governments are also at odds over interest and growth rates.
"The West today faces a crisis of employment, of leadership and of will," said Robert Hormats, vice president of Goldman-Sachs International, at a Council on Foreign Relations briefing yesterday.
Nationalism and fragmentation of the global economy are accompanied by disillusionment with Western governments and political parties, he said. "The chance for creating a post-Cold War order is being frittered away by all this."
And their collective unwillingness to spend has forced the Clinton administration to scale back drastically its ambitious plan for a $4 billion G-7 fund to help privatize Russia's economy, a key priority for Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, who will also be in Tokyo.
With economic agreements elusive, the United States has tried to get other G-7 countries' support for a strong political document from the summit that would stress the U.S. priority of curbing the spread of dangerous weapons.
It is likely to include a warning to Iran, suspected of trying to develop nuclear weapons; demand that North Korea submit to the full scope of international inspections; pledge assistance to help dismantle part of the former Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal; and urge Ukraine to surrender its nuclear arms. Additional warnings will be aimed at Libya and Iraq.
But it seems unlikely to produce a declaration.
Testier than usual
These disagreements, coming against the backdrop of U.S.-European disagreement over the Balkans war, may cause more than the usual amount of testiness to bubble to the surface and weaken Mr. Clinton's new assertion of leadership.
Europeans, viewing the way Mr. Clinton handled the Balkans, see a reminder of the Carter administration, says a Rand Corporation senior consultant, Marten Van Heuven. "We seem to be only half wanting to do whatever it is that we do," he said. "The perception in Europe is that there's a series of half-measures here."