Paris. -- The current conduct of America's foreign relations recalls the battle scene in the Marx Brothers' "Duck Soup" -- everyone firing in a different direction, reappearing in each cut in a different uniform.
President Clinton makes a convincing Zeppo, the superfluous juvenile, and Newt Gingrich can certainly be cast as Groucho, purveyor of crazed schemes. I see Jimmy Carter as Harpo and Mickey Kantor as the deal-cutting Chico. Jesse Helms could play the brothers' auxiliary, Edgar Buchanan, master of the "slow burn."
Each of these characters -- together with others, including presidential candidate Bob Dole, now in the possession of the Likud Party wing of the Israel lobby -- controls a part of America's foreign policy. Senator Helms seems in charge of the State Department itself, while the Republican majority in Congress decides what countries the United States recognizes, where the embassies are to be located, and who is to be boycotted or appeased.
Mr. Clinton is in charge of contradictions and reversals, as demonstrated again last week by his derisible performance on the issue of U.S. ground intervention/non-intervention in the former Yugoslavia.
If all this merely made the country a subject of ridicule, it would be embarrassing but survivable. But it is of course dangerous, and is not simply the product of Mr. Clinton's inadequacies and ** the rampant electoralism of Congress.
It displays the incoherence of public opinion itself, which has lost all but episodic interest in international affairs, with even the elites who managed foreign policy in the past no longer agreed on what the country should do.
A new book by Ronald Steel ("Temptations of a Superpower," Harvard) recommends what Mr. Steel calls "splendid isolation." He says that the United States should emulate Britain in the 19th century, when it was "unquestionably first among only potential equals," engaged only when and where its own interests were at stake.
Dean Acheson's biographer James Chace argues that a new global economic strategy must be linked to security strategy, just as the postwar Bretton Woods agreements paralleled the security structure being built up in NATO. He is also for a trans-Atlantic trade alliance, with Japan associated, and an eventual global trading union and world currency. Canada's government already has proposed a trans-Atlantic free-trade zone.
I do not myself think any of this feasible in the foreseeable future, and am skeptical in particular of the practicality or even desirability of trans-Atlantic or globalized trading systems and internationalized currencies. It will be achievement enough if Europe alone can agree on a common currency.
These contradictory proposals seem to me evidence that the United States will actually continue along its present course, which is unilaterally to pursue a narrowly conceived national advantage.
This is what we already are doing with respect to Japan, Bosnia, Russia, Iran, Iraq, Israel and Mexico -- the current objects of Washington's fitful attentions. This appeases domestic political pressures and can produce short-term results, which is what the public now is conditioned to expect.
The long-term consequences are another matter, but -- like the deficit -- can be shifted onward onto our children. The thrust of this policy (by default) tends naturally toward isolationism and to America's isolation, to the extent that national isolation is possible in a world of interacting economies, markets and communications.
U.S. initiatives in recent months fit this pattern. Washington's panic about North Korea's nuclear ambitions, insistence upon ongoing sanctions on Iraq and demand for a trade embargo on Iran, have all failed, while provoking much irritation abroad.
Its unilateral trade reprisals against Japan and unilateral negotiations with Russia (to which even Britain objected) over NATO's expansion, at the same time congressional calls were heard to vitiate that expansion by stripping from NATO membership its present guarantee of automatic mutual defense, have demonstrated a search for real or imagined advantage in disregard of everyone else. So, of course, has its Bosnia non-policy, and its veto of U.N. objections to Israel's expropriation of Arab land in Jerusalem.
All this has been disruptive of alliance relations, and no one in the administration or Congress seems really to care. This, I fear, is going to continue, whether Mr. Clinton succeeds himself or is replaced by any of the leading Republican candidates for the presidency.
It leads us back toward the emotional and political isolation of the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, but adds something. It provokes hostility. The United States increasingly is regarded by its allies as something of a menace -- at best as erratic and irresponsible.
The recommendations of Ronald Steel, Henry Kissinger, James Chace and others all assume a continuing American capacity for large visions, disinterested action and generosity. None of these qualities is evident on the political scene today, nor do they look like arriving with any new administration.
8, William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.