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.
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."
Even in economics, the one area in which the world's leading industrial nations have made progress together in recent years, the ability to mold a changing world is in jeopardy. Though the seven countries represented at the Naples summit account for 70 percent of the world's economy, "this is admittedly not as much of the world's economy as it used to be," a senior administration official said.
Other factors, too, complicate attempts to fashion what was once optimistically called the "new world order." Among them: the high rate of turnover among heads of governments, which Friday's death of the 82-year-old Korean leader accelerated.
Quite a few of the leaders Mr. Clinton faced around the summit table yesterday weren't even in power at last July's summit in Tokyo. Within the past year, Japan has had four prime ministers. French President Francois Mitterrand is leaving office in a few months, and German President Helmut Kohl faces a re-election challenge this year.
The leader whose hold on power has been most closely watched in recent times, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, will join the seven economic powers (the so-called G-7) for today's political discussions, as a full partner for the first time.
While Mr. Clinton was quick to cite these "G-8" political talks as proof that international institutions are making needed changes in the post-Cold War era, it isn't clear that today's leaders are up to the challenges facing them. The inability to end the war in Bosnia, which may get no more than passing attention in today's discussions, is perhaps the most prominent example; the issue of North Korean nuclear proliferation, now in further doubt, is another.
As persistent critics like Czech President Vaclav Havel and Poland's President Lech Walesa keep reminding their big brothers meeting here in Naples, a grand vision requires leadership.
If the current slow pace of global integration does not speed up, Mr. Walesa warned Mr. Clinton last week, there is a danger that regions with a long history of instability -- in this case Central Europe -- could become "a nowhere land where anything can happen."
It was a sermon the leaders might not want to hear as they try to grapple with a growing array of seemingly insurmountable problems. But it is one that might have particular significance as they return for their closing session at the Palazzo Reale, whose brick and mortar have far outlasted the king of Naples who ruled here at the height of the long-lost Spanish Empire.