WASHINGTON -- Newt Gingrich -- House Speaker, novelist, historian, political provocateur, and one who expresses opinions on a thousand subjects -- ventured onto the foreign policy stage yesterday in a speech intended to showcase another facet of the man: Gingrich as international statesman.
In what was billed as a "major" foreign policy address to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Georgia Republican outlined broad principles that he believes ought to guide U.S. foreign policy. But Mr. Gingrich acknowledged an unusual agenda, too: He didn't want to make news.
All but invited during the question-and-answer period to criticize President Clinton's Bosnia policy, he refused.
"If I get into the day-to-day policies of this administration, that will be the only sound bite," he said. "And I want to taunt them into trying to understand what I actually said."
Another time, Mr. Gingrich was asked what he thought of the effort by French-speaking separatists to have Quebec secede from Canada -- and whether he thought Quebec should then be allowed to join NAFTA, the free-trade alliance of Canada, Mexico and the United States.
In the not-so-distant past, a question like that might have generated a lecture from Mr. Gingrich on free trade in North America, going back to the time of Fort Ticonderoga.
Not yesterday. The speaker paused after hearing the question, wondered aloud about the legality of allowing Quebec to join NAFTA, and replied: "I have to tell you that one is -- that's totally beyond me. Having gotten into enough trouble over Taiwan, I will sidestep the opportunity."
Last week, Mr. Gingrich touched off a storm across the Pacific when he rather casually suggested that the United States recognize Taiwan as an independent nation.
To Beijing officials, this was one of the most provocative statements he could have made. The current crisis in U.S.-China relations is due primarily to the Clinton administration's granting a visa to Taiwan's president so that he could go to Cornell University, his alma mater, on a private visit.
The Chinese have fumed that this is the first step to undermining the agreed-upon "one China" policy.
Mr. Gingrich's remark indicated even to some of his allies that he has not learned some of the crucial distinctions between foreign and domestic policy.
"It's a different ballgame," said Lawrence J. Korb, an assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan. "People pay attention to every nuance."
"Reagan had to learn it," Mr. Korb recalled. "Remember when he joked about launching missiles against the Soviet Union? Not all Russians thought it was funny."
Mr. Gingrich didn't quite recant his Taiwan statements. But he spent considerable time clarifying them.
"I think that my first goal in saying that," he said, "was to say to the leadership in Beijing that while it's very useful for us to understand them, it's also very useful for them to understand us."
The bulk of Mr. Gingrich's address was a philosophical discussion of the future, conducted mostly in generalities. The speaker said it was important to adopt "visions, strategies, projects and tactics."
Alluding to Bosnia, he suggested that leaders in Washington and the other Western capitals have been responding to the "headline of the day" by changing tactics without forming a clear vision, discussing a strategy for achieving it and launching projects calculated to succeed.
He implied that Bosnia itself is not so crucial to the West, but that defending the honor and commitments of the West is. Referring to Serbian units that are attacking United Nations "safe areas," reportedly committing atrocities, Mr. Gingrich said that it was imperative for the West not to allow "a small band of barbarians" to prevail over the superpowers.
"When directly challenged, we must be victorious," he said.
As he has been in the past, Mr. Gingrich was harshly critical of U.N. "peacekeeping" missions and questioned the huge financial commitment made by the United States to the United Nations for a job the United States could do better.
The speaker prefaced his speech with a list of "strategies" that he called necessary to renew the United States. His list includes balancing the budget, decentralizing political power, dismantling the "welfare state," curbing crime and drug abuse and improving public schools.
"No society that has three out of four children in the fourth grade reading below the fourth-grade reading level is going to lead the planet," he said. "If we don't solve our problems at home, we are not going to lead the world."