If the hardest task in Washington is to remember what you set out to do at the beginning of a big project, the second hardest is to recognize that you have done what you can and to move on.

That thought springs from the contentious and initially unproductive opening of the World Trade Organization's discussions in Seattle this week on new international commercial negotiations. This meeting is an example of failing to change horses after you have crossed the stream and your steed has gone lame. In a different way so is the dead end that U.S.-Russian relations have entered over arms control.

It is neither in the interests nor the nature of the Clinton administration to accept publicly that it has run out of steam and time on grand topics such as global trade and arms control. Expect no period of modest rose garden tending from this White House.

But the Clinton team can at this point usefully avoid fanning unrealistic expectations on the unattainable or the unnecessary. The ultimate meaning of the Seattle gathering will not be to demonstrate the brilliance and accomplishments of this administration. It shows instead how far beyond government control the most important sectors of global trade and finance have already advanced.

The Seattle gathering seems to be an epic anticlimax in the making. It contains echoes of President Clinton's failed push for fast-track authority in 1997, when no significant trade deal was pending to mobilize business support to counter the opposition of labor unions and other skeptical groups.

Business executives said at the time they were too busy concluding the deals that the fast-track authority was supposed to make possible to have time to lobby for it. In the financial abundance of the Clinton years, no visible damage seems to have been done to American prosperity by the absence of fast track.

The underwhelming WTO gathering has this unintended effect: It underlines the surprisingly derivative nature of Clinton's record on trade. His two terms essentially consolidated and advanced international initiatives that President Bush had sponsored in one term.

Clinton, whose domestic budget successes ensure his place in history, does deserve credit for the skill with which he steered passage of NAFTA and the completion and implementation of the Uruguay Round. But he did not introduce innovative approaches on trade that might have justified the administration's insistence on hosting and hullabalooing the 135-nation WTO conclave on American soil. Clinton played out a hand dealt essentially by Bush, a reality that will not be ignored on the U.S. presidential campaign trail.

The same judgment can be made about the administration's outdated approach to arms control and national defense, which has remained mired in the Cold War even though the Cold War ended nearly a decade ago.

Over his two terms, Clinton did little to change the structure of America's military forces, which were designed to deter or fight the Soviet Union with conventional and nuclear weapons. And he has continued to treat U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals as captives of an arms control process and agreements that go back three decades.

The White House has made Russian ratification of the Start II treaty that was negotiated and signed by Bush (and is now stalled in a hostile Duma) the essential condition for any new reductions in nuclear weapons. The old Cold War structures of superpower-to-superpower negotiations are being maintained in the exploratory discussions underway between Washington and Moscow on national missile defense.

George W. Bush, Bill Bradley and other candidates throw darts at the Clinton-Gore team for imposing humanitarian missions on the military structure it inherited. But the mainstream candidates have yet to sketch out a convincing alternative that would finally move the United States beyond Cold War mind-sets on defense and diplomacy.

That alternative exists. It involves adopting a policy of minimal nuclear deterrence based on 1,500 U.S. warheads or so. This arsenal can be achieved by unilateral cuts that do not depend on Russian acquiescence or politics. Russia's nuclear arsenal is being reduced by attrition in any event, and only a ruinously expensive effort could try to reverse that.

Conventional forces would be made smaller, more mobile and better equipped to master tomorrow's smaller but nastier battlefields.

On trade and defense, an old era has passed. The candidate who breaks that news to the American public in a convincing way will have achieved a significant advantage in the 2000 race.