Gearing Up for the Clinton Presidency


Albuquerque, New Mexico.--As foreign minister, the president-elect is doing it right, which is to say doing very little. It is mostly boilerplate: reassurances to friends, reminders that George Bush is still president, telephone calls to the right capitals, ringing support for the North American Free Trade Agreement now that the unions have safely voted.

It is doubly the right attitude in that discretion always becomes a president-elect and this one is a neophyte in world affairs. Presumably his advisers are conducting a crash course. But ultimately the command is his, and some day soon Bill Clinton will reach for a compass to guide him through the global maze, and find nothing.

Or perhaps he has already done it since election day. There was no need earlier; the campaign rarely touched foreign policy. If now he has looked, Mr. Clinton realizes that he is the first president in a half-century to enter office without a global charter. Since shortly after World War II the Cold War shaped American initiatives and responses around the world. The exceptions were rare.

Policies emerged from the Truman Doctrine of 1947, which blocked communism in Greece and Turkey, and the doctrine's progeny. The mutual-defense guarantees of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization decreed policies in Western Europe. NATO became the centerpiece in a network of mutual-security treaties, the only one to make an attack on one an attack on all. Most today are canceled or disused; NATO survives.

By 1950 the nation needed an intellectual foundation for the confrontation beyond diplomat George Kennan's famous "long telegram" prescribing containment. It emerged in NSC 68, the National Security Council assessment aimed specifically against Soviet expansion. For almost a quarter-century, NSC 68 remained formally secret though its terms were widely known. It is sometimes hard to realize that the entire period from World War II to today's transition is only a historical moment; Paul Nitze, principal author of NSC 68, just recently retired. But the Soviet Union is no more, and the old charter is irrelevant. The transition began on Ronald Reagan's watch, of course, with the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev. What would follow was still uncertain when George Bush became president. In his four years, Mr. Bush managed spectacular East-West developments easily, mainly by going with the tide. How well he managed them history will decide.

He did his best to save Mr. Gorbachev, but he yielded as Mr. Gorbachev fell in time to preserve amicable relations with Boris Yeltsin. When the Berlin Wall came down, he promptly welcomed German reunification. Privately he may have felt the qualms that Margaret Thatcher in London and Francois Mitterrand in Paris briefly could not suppress. The Persian Gulf was the setting for both President Bush's greatest moment, the war against Iraq, and his scruffiest failure, the abysmal pre-war diplomacy.

It is a mark of the times that Mr. Clinton inherits a world as stable as it is likely to be for years. That is small comfort. An international think tank reports 40-odd conflicts under way in which people are dying daily. Fortunately, none demands the immediate commitment of American lives.

But early Clinton decisions may have life-and-death implications later. Should he, for example, try to draft a foreign-policy charter suitable to today's new world disorder? To say no is to leave unpredictable the greatest economic and military power of them all. Foreign-policy gurus disagree about whether, in the absence of clear and present danger, unpredictability is a good thing.

But to say yes is to try what is perhaps impossible, setting course in a fragmented world more specific than laughable platitudes. Some would argue that blind obedience to a charter led into Vietnam. Is it even thinkable to foretell when America, out of humanity, public pressure, or raw self-interest, will intervene somewhere on behalf of starving or opressed millions? Then too some of the decisions awaiting the new president will not bear close scrutiny by the neighborhood Sunday school.

Take the future of the Western Alliance. NATO lives for now because reductions in Soviet forces are far from complete. But the plan also is to preserve NATO forever against some vague future threat. Justifying it after the visible potential threat subsides will be hard. The truth is that many Americans and Europeans want to keep U.S. troops in Europe for stability in case Europe shatters. Try putting in a policy paper, certain to leak, the need for soldiers to keep the arm on your German friends. Your Japanese friends too, for that matter.

Doubtless domestic priorities were the right ones for the 1992 campaign. A great power cannot perform as one without domestic strength. Indeed, the public fixed the priorities and was uninterested in a world still treacherous, dangerous and costly. But the result was understatement of foreign policy. The president tried to raise it, and failed because he had little to offer beyond his own flawed experience. Mr. Clinton now must face it. He will find that preserving the U.S. role abroad while reordering the nation will be as tough as the reordering.

Henry L. Trewhitt, former diplomatic correspondent of The Sun, teaches at the University of New Mexico.

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