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U.S. Leaders Uncertain of Future

By Doyle McManus
Los Angeles Times


When it comes to foreign policy, the leaders of American society are worried, divided -- and uncertain about where they want to lead.

That's the central finding of a poll by the Times Mirror Center for The People & The Press of more than 600 U.S. opinion-makers, drawn from the top ranks of business, state and local government and almost every other walk of life.

Four years after the end of the Cold War, the members of America's elite -- from the chief executives of Fortune 500 companies to top foreign policy experts, archbishops and novelists -- are no longer celebrating. Instead, they worry that the world is heading toward a future of ethnic strife, proliferating weapons and economic conflict.

But they aren't sure how the nation should respond. Asked to name their most immediate priority in foreign policy, most name a domestic issue: getting the U.S. economy going again. Beyond that, there is little agreement on America's role in the world.

Not since the 1930s have American politicians, business chiefs and other leaders been so uncertain about the nation's international goals.

"With the end of the Cold War, there is no longer a consensus among the American people around why -- and even whether -- our nation should remain actively engaged in the world," Anthony Lake, President Clinton's national security adviser, said in a recent speech.

Among the poll's key findings:

* About two-thirds of America's opinion leaders are dissatisfied with the way things are going, both at home and abroad -- a complaint shared by every group, from business executives to religious figures.

* A huge majority of opinion leaders agree on one thing: The nation's top priority in foreign affairs should be a domestic issue, rebuilding the economy. Among business leaders, 90 percent cited this as a top priority; among university and think-tank presidents, 94 percent; among cultural figures, 72 percent.

* After the economy, though, opinion leaders were divided over the nation's priorities. Scientists and cultural figures called for environmental protection; foreign policy experts cited helping Russia's reforms succeed, and business leaders pointed to enacting the North American Free Trade Agreement.