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FOR THE past few years, Congress has been cutting the foreign aid budget, refusing to pay U.N. dues and closing embassies and consulates (almost 40 out of 275 posts since 1992) on the assumption that this was what the public wanted at the end of the Cold War.

There is this view in Congress that in the "real" America, people don't care about foreign policy and don't want to pay for it now that the Soviets are gone.I beg to differ. What you find when you go to the heartland is that many people are keenly interested in foreign policy and open markets and are far more willing to contribute to it than are the know-nothing freshmen Republicans who claim to speak in their names.

Pat Buchanan undoubtedly touched a chord with his arguments about job insecurity, but the fact is, Buchanan's isolationist-protectionist foreign policy prescriptions were utterly repudiated by Republican primary voters throughout the mid-American farm belt, where Bob Dole trounced him. I asked Minnesota's Republican governor, Arne Carlson, for an explanation.

"You listen to (Lamar) Alexander and he complains that he never got his message out," says Carlson. "The problem with Buchanan is that he did get his message out, and there was a very quiet `no' vote. What you had here was a quiet understanding on the part of farmers that they benefited from NAFTA. They want open, competitive relationships on the world market and while there might be some dissatisfaction with the question of equity, they were not willing to buy into the closed-door theory of Buchanan."

It wasn't only farmers. Minnesota last year had $8.8 billion in exports. And with such companies as Honeywell, 3M and General Mills dominating the Twin Cities skyline, "you're not going to get anyone connected with the corporate structure who is going to be isolationist or anti-NAFTA," said Carlson.

"We as a state," he said, "rely heavily on these consulates. It means a lot when local business leaders are invited to the U.S. ambassador's home and can mingle with Minnesotans selling the Minnesota message. (The consulates) have the economic experts who can tell us when we are right and tell us when we are wrong. They set up the meetings. For Congress just to come and say `no dice' is penny-wise and several pounds foolish . . . They're going to regret it."

This isn't just about commercial diplomacy, argues Carlson.

"The other piece is that we have to decide our moral obligations. Some of these minor conflicts have the potential for universal destruction. What are we going to do as a society in terms of Third World countries? If we don't learn to build bridges, to encourage investment and to encourage solutions we are going to seriously hurt ourselves. Look, as a state, we are in the prison-building business. But we are saying to the state, `Well, you better also be in the prevention business because the prison business is expensive.' Well, the war business is very expensive. It's a lot cheaper to build bridges."

Of course it makes sense to adapt, and even streamline, America's foreign policy apparatus in the wake of the Cold War's ending. But that doesn't necessarily mean shrinking it across the board. Japan, for instance, is increasing embassies and consulates around the world.

Unfortunately, too many of those who should lead on foreign policy have either abdicated or taken the easy way out by following the freshmen Republican herd. They are taking us over a cliff, and any governor from a supposedly hick, small Midwestern state can tell you that.