WASHINGTON — With the United States facing problems in Afghanistan, will other international issues rise to bite a turned back?

Many former U.S. officials and international experts say that degenerating conflicts and AIDS in Africa, North Korea's nuclear status and Argentina's financial crisis are among the issues that have fallen off the U.S. agenda and could spill over and pose vexing problems for the world.

But the jury is still out on whether the Bush administration has been won over to the merits of multilateralism and engagement in dealing with international problems, some observers say. They see only scant evidence the United States is ready to tackle what are sometimes called "soft" issues on the foreign policy agenda — promoting democracy, building nations, alleviating poverty — even though those are problems now needing attention in Afghanistan.

"We should have learned that those (issues) should get higher priority than they have in the past, but I'm not sure we have," says Frank Loy, who was undersecretary of state for global affairs under President Bill Clinton. "If we don't try to resolve them, a lot of people will not like us," he says. "And if we don't address them, we won't have the relationships that create the helpful alliances we need when we're in a lurch."

Doubts about the administration's approach to world problems arose again over the weekend after the United States stunned allies by blocking an international accord on biological weapons at a Geneva conference. The United States said the accord as envisioned was weak on enforcement provisions and would be worse than trying for something better later.

Elsewhere, specific countries could also pose future problems.

North Korea's nuclear proliferation and weapons development is one such hot spot. Last week President Bush called on North Korea to allow in U.N.inspectors to determine if the country is developing nuclear weapons — but he did so in the context of warnings to Iraq on "what's next" if Saddam Hussein does not allow in U.N. inspectors.

That juxtaposition is worrisome, says Ashton Carter, a Harvard University expert on Asia, because past experience indicates discussion with North Korea "can be fruitful, whereas there is no indication of that" from Iraq. And, indeed, North Korea responded angrily, saying that they could resort to "countermeasures" in response to Bush's demand.

Some administration observers say Secretary of State Colin Powell favors engagement with North Korea, while other officials support starving the regime into submission through sanctions. Critics observe that a similar approach failed in Afghanistan.

Powell has also advocated a higher profile for African issues, but events have conspired against him. Old conflicts are deepening in Angola and Congo and Zimbabwe. As deadly riots in Nigeria recently pointed out, conflicts between the continent's Muslims and other religious groups remain combustible.

"If the international community is truly awakened now to the risks of collapsed states, then we need to get serious about these places," says Timothy Docking, an Africa expert at the United States Institute of Peace here. The Bush administration has "continued to surprise with its work on the continent," primarily at Powell's urging, he says, but questions about commitment remain.

Too often Africa is regarded as having few strategic interests, say some observers, even though investigations show Osama bin Laden's network was funded, in part, by African diamond sales.

Docking also warns that experts are worried that the AIDS epidemic could make hard-hit African countries a global springboard of new strains of disease.

Argentina's financial woes

Country problems that end up going global is also a theme that arises where Argentina and its financial crisis is concerned. Most financial experts say it is now a question of when — not if — Argentina will default on international loans. Four years ago, similar problems in Russia and Brazil caused global ripples and forced quick intervention by international financial institutions.

"It's a mistake to just let Argentina's chips fall," says Peter Hakim, director of the Inter-American dialogue in Washington.

But Hakim says the Treasury Department has neither the "analytical capacity" nor the attention to focus to Argentina right now. The administration does not even have its top diplomat for Latin American affairs in place.

No clearer metaphor exists for Latin America's tumble on the White House priority list, Hakim says, than how Mexican President Vincente Fox went from being greeted as America's most important friend four days before the Sept. 11 attacks, to having trouble getting Washington appointments in the aftermath.

While the turning point of Sept. 11 made a reshuffling of priorities inevitable, experts say, many maintain the experience only reinforces the importance of U.S. engagement across the globe.

Fresh acceptance of that may explain Powell's rising star within the administration, since he is seen as engagement's chief promoter in a sometimes hostile environment. But some observers doubt whether the United States has really changed its thinking on multilateral involvement.

"That requires a change in fundamental attitudes," says Loy, "and I see no reason to think that shift has taken place."