THE PRESIDENTIAL primaries have offered up debates on health care, poverty and education, important subjects over which the federal executive has only partial control. Foreign policy, by contrast, is traditionally the responsibility of the president, and so a key subject by which to judge candidates. George Bush's foreign policy speech on Friday was admirable in its repudiation of the Republican Party's isolationists. Its proposals were mainly sound, its general thrust reassuring in its internationalism. Its main flaw lay in its exaggerated claim to mark a departure from existing policy.
Mr. Bush advocated what he called a "distinctly American internationalism," which would involve capitalizing on the current moment of American ascendancy to build a lasting democratic peace. He declared that he would work closely with allies in Asia and Europe to achieve this, and denounced the idea of cutting back on American involvement in the world. He promised that a Bush foreign policy would always put the nation's values at its center. All these sensible sentiments are broadly shared by the Clinton administration.
Mr. Bush's more specific proposals mostly extended this resemblance. He applauded China's inclusion in the World Trade Organization. He reaffirmed America's one-China policy, yet promised to help Taiwan defend itself. He pledged support to the nations of the Baltics, yet stopped short of inviting them to join NATO. On the question of the United Nations, Mr. Bush declared that "if I am president, America will pay its dues -- but only if the U.N.'s bureaucracy is reformed and our disproportionate share of its costs is reduced" -- a precise echo of current policy. Mr. Bush also proposed a bigger effort to help dismantle Russia's nuclear arsenal. In the recent budget fight, Mr. Clinton demanded more money for loose nukes too.
Mr. Bush sought to distinguish himself from the Clintonites by labeling their policy "random and reactive." The administration, according to this view, has spent too much energy on crises like Kosovo, and not enough on nurturing dialogue with the big powers that really count. But this is a blunt criticism. Everyone agrees that big-power relationships are crucial; yet every president inevitably finds that unexpected crises demand attention. Ronald Reagan, revered by all Republicans for his triumph in the Cold War, got embroiled in side-shows such as Lebanon and Grenada.
For all the similarity, Mr. Bush did distinguish himself from the Clinton foreign policy in a few areas. Regrettably, he opposed the test ban treaty, although he supports the administration's voluntary moratorium (initiated by his father) on tests. He declared that Russia's war crimes in Chechnya warranted a suspension of aid; President Clinton, for his part, has denounced Russia but is still mulling the aid question.
Most striking of all, Mr. Bush hinted that he might contemplate a tougher strategy toward China. He scorned Mr. Clinton's references to China as a "strategic partner," contending that China should be "unthreatened, but not unchecked" -- and that the checking should come from strengthened American alliances with other Asian nations. At times, the Clinton administration has invested energy in those alliances too. It led the bail-outs of Thailand, Indonesia and South Korea, and it has coaxed Japan toward a more muscular contribution to regional security. But Mr. Clinton has sometimes tilted toward China at the expense of its neighbors. And, for fear of provoking the Chinese, he has been careful not to suggest that America's cultivation of regional alliances reflects an anticipated threat from China.
Still, Mr. Bush is right to accept most of the broad outlines of the Clinton foreign policy. These have on the whole been good. Mr. Clinton's foreign policy mistakes -- and there have been serious ones -- have for the most part come down to timing and handling. Unfortunately, prejudging the competence of Mr. Bush on those crucial qualities is hard -- just as it is with other candidates.