WASHINGTON -- Still lacking a blueprint to guide their actions, President Clinton and other leaders of the richest democracies gather in Italy this week to nail a few more planks onto the superstructure of the new world order.
Each has plans anchored in economics -- the one tie that binds them all. But as they grapple with the crisis of the moment, a falling dollar, they acknowledge they can't see yet what the larger framework for a peaceful planet should look like.
Compared with the euphoria that accompanied the destruction of the Berlin Wall five years ago, a sense of pessimism prevails about the future of global affairs.
Old ethnic hatreds and tribal rivalries are blazing out of control in Europe and Africa. Separatist movements are rising in number and strength worldwide. Even as fax machines, computers and global television pull nations closer together, the world appears to be coming apart.
"The old order has collapsed, but no one has yet created a new one," Czech President Vaclav Havel commented earlier this year. The search for a new framework, one that could guide the world into a more prosperous and secure future, has become the "historic task of our time and our generation."
As the world's only superpower, the United States is expected to be the architect of the post-Cold War world, as it was after World War II. But the outlines of a new foreign policy are still emerging, and there are widespread doubts about Mr. Clinton's ability to provide strong leadership in this turbulent period.
Mr. Clinton, who departs tomorrow on a weeklong European trip that is to include three days of summit talks in Naples, has actually developed a more coherent foreign policy strategy than is widely believed. But even he acknowledges that important gaps remain and that dealing with problems like Bosnia, Haiti and North Korea have been tougher than he imagined.
"The reality of the post-Cold War world," he said a few weeks ago, is that "we're all searching for new arrangements that work."
It all seemed so simple during those Cold War years.
For nearly half a century, there was a single, unifying goal to strive toward, a common threat to rally against. The "red menace" was the United States' foe. The policy of "containment" demanded that the United States and its allies confront Soviet expansionism in every corner of the globe.
"Containment had a durability to it," says Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, ++ the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, who is often mentioned as a possible successor to Warren M. Christopher as secretary of state. "It was simple: good guys vs. bad guys. It had a moral component to it. It was a theme for American foreign policy around which you could rally the American people.
"The great challenge for American foreign policy today is to come up with a kind of a theme that would rally Americans and gain their support. I don't think we have that today. I don't think it's going to be easily come by."
Mr. Clinton has identified the highest priority of his foreign policy: supporting political and economic reform in Russia and the other former Soviet republics.
But the administration has been struggling to find its voice as it gropes for a broader strategy. A succession of buzzwords -- "enlargement," "aggressive multilateralism" and "integration" -- has been trotted out. No resonant doctrine has been proclaimed so far. As one administration official concedes, "We haven't found the bumper-strip slogan yet."
Clinton aides, noting the years it took to produce the containment strategy, are pleading for time.
"It took Truman five or six years to prevail, and the internationalists to prevail, in that debate, and it will take a while for a new consensus to emerge around a new American foreign policy," says Anthony Lake, the president's national security adviser, speaking of the era after World War II.
Mr. Clinton and other leaders are operating in a far more complex and unstable age, however, one in which the entire world watches events unfold on live television, and perceptions can change with dizzying speed. Decades ago, leaders of the free world had more time to think before reacting to cataclysmic events. Today, they are required to react to catastrophes they learn of at the same time as the public.
"More than ever before, you are under a daily barrage of events around the world that are not only transmitted very vividly on television screens but through multiple media channels," Mr. Lake says. "The pressures are just immense to be reacting every day to rapidly changing events."
Midway through his second year in office, Mr. Clinton does have the foundation of a policy. It includes:
* Maintaining U.S. military superiority;
* Aggressively opening foreign markets to American goods;
* Promoting the spread of democracy.
But while the president has begun to assemble these "building blocks" of a foreign policy, even some in his own administration are privately critical of his failure to manage that policy more consistently.
"There is no vacillation in the principles of the policies," Mr. Clinton has said. "It's just that we don't know what will work within the limits of our ability to deal with some of these problems."
But at the root of what's been dubbed the Clinton "strategy gap" a series of factors appear to be hobbling America's ability to provide world leadership. That raises questions about whether U.S. influence in the world will erode under the Clinton presidency.
Some of these factors have been thrust upon Mr. Clinton; others, he brings to the table.
In political terms, Mr. Clinton is in a bind. "The elite opinion is that he's not devoting enough attention to foreign policy, but the public perception is that he's spending too much attention," says Mark Mellman, a Democratic political consultant.
The story is much the same in other major nations, where isolationist sentiment appears to be growing, and leaders are under pressure to spend their energy -- and the public's tax money -- on problems close to home.
"Japan, Germany, Italy, France, England and Russia are all looking at the world through different glasses," says Don M. Snider, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here. "They've taken their Cold War glasses off and are looking through domestic glasses."
In economic terms, winning the Cold War added $1 trillion in red ink to the U.S. Treasury during the 1980s alone. Paying the interest on the national debt now consumes more money each year than Mr. Clinton wants to spend for all his new domestic programs.
That rules out the sort of massive foreign aid that, under the containment policy, rebuilt Japan and Germany after World War II (and has made it possible for Germany to provide the only significant financial help to a former Soviet satellite, East Germany).
In personal terms, Mr. Clinton, who at the height of the 1960s anti-war movement said he "loathed" the military, appears ambivalent about his job as commander-in-chief. The perception that he is hesitant to use the military is another reason that the United States is seen as taking a more modest role overseas.
For better or worse, the nation that bombed Libya, invaded Grenada and Panama and mounted the overwhelming assault against Iraqi invaders of Kuwait is now seen as the country that scurried out of Somalia and flinched in Haiti.
"American influence is declining. That's a fact," says Charles William Maynes, editor of Foreign Policy magazine.
At a global TV forum in May, Mr. Clinton said that America's message to the world today is: "Yes, we will fight to protect the lives of our people, but not to try to solve your problems for you."
By default, if nothing else, some form of multilateralism -- groups of nations acting together to attack specific problems -- appears to be emerging as the most likely framework for dealing with the post-Cold War world.
The United States will act "alone when necessary," Mr. Clinton has said, and "with others whenever possible." The administration's long-range goal is to shift greater responsibility for peacekeeping and what it calls "crisis prevention" to international organizations, from the United Nations to NATO to other regional alliances in places such as Asia and Latin America.
But while this approach worked well in the Persian Gulf war, where the threat to world order was clear and the United States aggressively took the lead to repel Iraq's desert army, it has fallen flat in Bosnia.
"The U.S. being the pre-eminent power, it's not likely to take place without U.S. leadership," says Morton Abramowitz, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "In Bosnia, there was no consensus, and we really didn't work hard enough to generate a consensus."
While Mr. Clinton concedes that he underestimated the difficulty of getting U.S. allies in Europe to go along with his plan to allow arms sales to Bosnian Muslims, administration officials acknowledge that a larger question remains unresolved: the extent to which the United States is, or will be, the most important player on the world stage.
Key to answering that question is another one that Mr. Clinton has been slow to resolve: when and how to use military force as an instrument of post-Cold War foreign policy.
"It is more complicated, because the justification for the use of force in each set of circumstances is different," contends Peter Tarnoff, a senior State Department official. "When we were facing a unified threat from the Soviet Union there was greater clarity when it came to assessing the nature of the threat and the nature of the response."
By deciding such questions on a case-by-case basis, says Spyros Economides, a foreign policy analyst at the London School of Economics, the United States is sending an uncertain signal to other countries.
"They see a great power that is 'to-ing' and 'fro-ing' on certain issues, and they don't know how to cope with that," he says. "Where is [the United States] going to intervene, and how is it going to assist in intervention? It went into Somalia, but it doesn't go into Yugoslavia. It threatens to go into Haiti, but it does nothing about Rwanda. What are the bases on which these kind of policies are going to be decided? I don't think there is a clear indication."
Lee Kwan Yew, the former prime minister of Singapore, believes that the major powers -- the United States, Japan, China, Western Europe and Russia -- have 20 or 30 years to work out a system to manage world peace and stability, perhaps through the United Nations.
"Wars between small countries won't destroy the whole world, but will only destroy themselves," he said earlier this year. "But big conflicts between big powers will destroy the world many times over. That's just too disastrous to contemplate."
Ekkehart Krippendorf, a political scientist at the Free University of Berlin, finds "a certain honesty of confusion" in U.S. foreign policy.
"The helplessness of the United States is the helplessness that we all feel, because we have not yet come to a new paradigm after the Cold War," he says.
Until those questions are resolved, however, there is little chance that today's world leaders -- or, more likely, their successors -- can tackle the really big problems clouding the planet's future: overpopulation, hunger, disease, the spread of nuclear, chemical and other weapons of mass destruction.
Those issues are hardly paramount on the agenda for the winners of the Cold War who are meeting in Italy this week. Nor have they been since the Cold War ended.