WASHINGTON — After a year that was unusual, peculiar and unbelievable enough to qualify as one long April Fool’s Day, the U.S. government is finally back doing governmental work. It isn’t boring, but it is less colorful than the year of Monica et al. We have lost some of our more entertaining characters — particularly in the House of Representatives. Speaker Dennis Hastert seems to be getting his legislative agenda moving smoothly, even with his very modest majority. But he is not Newt Gingrich. He is not spewing out provocative rhetoric, picking fights and the like. We all thought that would be refreshing, but there are times when Newt’s energy and style kept the city on its toes.

The legislative agenda for both the majority Republicans and the minority Democrats is mainly about money. With the economy booming and the big elections just 15 months away, leaders on both sides of the aisle are honing their rhetoric and developing their politics within the confines of the spending programs of the budget.

Republicans are looking for creative ways to return some of the surplus to the voters without looking irresponsible about the problems of social security and Medicare funding. Democrats are using the long-term problems facing these programs to argue against big tax cuts and to sweeten the social safety net provided by icons of their party’s past.

But regular Washington business is being overwhelmed by foreign policy questions:

* The war in the Balkans has everybody nervous. There is universal revulsion at Serb atrocities but a growing sense of helplessness on how to stop them. The years-long stalemate with Serb President Slobodan Milosevic over his ethnic-cleansing tactics throughout the former Yugoslavia now focuses on the Serbian holy land, Kosovo, a province more than 90 percent ethnic Albanian but totally controlled by the Serbs. Americans are supporting the air war, but they have many questions about why and much trepidation about any potential ground engagement by the United States.

* As if we did not have enough trouble, the Serbia problem is turning into a Russia problem.

It is no secret that Americans continue to be wary of Russia. The collapse of that country’s economy last summer has reinforced concerns that there is “no there, there.” The vaunted economic and military superpower of a decade ago is now a bumbling, inept, poverty-ridden nation that can’t seem to get its act together either politically or economically.

U.S. President Bill Clinton is vulnerable to the problem of Russia’s dissent over Kosovo. It can be interpreted as a negative but predictable consequence that was not considered in the development of the administration’s Serbian policy. And the president is being questioned on his grasp of the totality of foreign-policy questions.

* There is no tougher foreign-policy question for this administration than that of China. It is tough because there are so many different reasons Americans have to question or oppose China policy.

The right opposes China because of its communist politics and its “godless” policies of population control. The left opposes China because of its weaknesses in the spheres of human rights and democracy. The business community wants China to be more open and more respectful of property rights. Labor is scared to death of the flood of cheap manufactured goods made by low-wage Chinese workers.

Making sense of all of this has not been easy. On his trip to China last year, Clinton put all these issues on the back burner, determined to forge a constructive relationship with Beijing. He took the position that one-fourth of all people on Earth are citizens of China; that China has a permanent seat (and veto power) on the U.N. Security Council; and that its vast resources and potential economic power make China a very important partner for the U.S. in this troubled world.

Now comes a test of that strategic relationship. Zhu arrives in the U.S. this week for a major political trip — one that is important to him in his leadership capacity at home and one that is important to Clinton as an opportunity to demonstrate his leadership on difficult international issues.

In these past few weeks, U.S. and Chinese negotiators have been working feverishly to conclude trade agreements that will allow China to join the World Trade Organization. To get the deal, the Chinese team has been making concessions that people thought would be years in coming. But as much as the U.S. business community and the trade-policy establishment want China as a part of WTO, there is real resistance from Congress. Without WTO membership, China operates on congressional authorities in trade. Every year, Congress must consider a resolution to allow China “most-favored-nation” status. It is reluctant to give up this authority and deny itself this annual anti-China pulpit.

* Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi is also waiting in the wings for a visit to Clinton. His nation’s slow road to economic recovery portends further economic slowness in Asia and in the U.S.’ prime export zones.

When Mike Mansfield was the U.S. ambassador to Japan, he had a favorite phrase to describe the relationship: “The most important bilateral relationship in the world — bar none,” he would say, “is that between the U.S. and Japan.” His staff came to call it the “bar none” statement: words to be added to every speech the ambassador gave.

Is this statement still operative? Is the U.S.-Japan relationship still the most important in the world — bar none? These nations still run the two largest and most robust economies in the world. They can move markets and they command an enormous amount of consumption from the rest of the world.

Yet Japan is entering its third year of recession. The bottom may have been reached, but that assessment is still to be tested. The U.S. has been more than an interested bystander in the economic situation in Japan. Its Treasury Department says it has been trying to advise and help the Japanese government in its efforts to work its way out of the slump. The Japanese would say the Americans have been meddling.

Recovery in Japan is necessary to pull the Asian economies back to life. U.S. companies see recovery in Japan and Asia as essential to providing the markets they need to maintain their profitability. They need to be profitable to fuel the continued growth in U.S. equity markets. Remember the famous sign in the Little Rock Clinton 1992 campaign war room, “It’s the economy, stupid.” That is still the name of the game.

Obuchi will arrive in Washington to see Clinton in May. He will be well-received. He has made many of the changes the U.S. believed were necessary to get Japan’s economy back on track. It is still in the doldrums, but recovery is now seen to be beginning. There are no serious trade disputes between the U.S. and Japan — a unique situation. Still, old scars heal slowly, and there are plenty of policy specialists ready to do battle when the prime minister arrives.

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