The Foreign Unpolicy


It's become accepted wisdom that Bill Clinton isn't interested in foreign affairs and doesn't have a foreign policy. The truth is, however, that a distinctively Clintonian foreign policy has emerged.

In his stance toward Western Europe and Bosnia, Japan and China, Mr. Clinton has revealed the contours of a new diplomacy -- a repudiation not only of the Bush administration's approach, but of American foreign policy since the beginning of World War II.

Here are four of the most important principles and how Mr. Clinton has stood them on their head.

* The subordination of economic to foreign policy: During World War II and the Cold War, the United States put the containment of Soviet-led communism and the creation of a stable world economic order ahead of immediate national economic interests. It tolerated asymmetrical trade and investment restrictions in Europe and Asia and encouraged American companies to license their technology to potential competitors in Japan. Until 1971 the U.S. also permitted Europe and Japan to undervalue their currencies in relation to the dollar. The loss of short-term profits, it was thought, would be more than offset by an industrially viable Western Europe and East Asia bound together with the United States in a global economic and military alliance.

This approach made sense because the United States commanded a disproportionate share of the world's GNP -- 50 percent in the late '40s -- and needed viable trading partners. By the early '70s, however, Japan and Western Europe had become fierce competitors. Under President Nixon and Treasury Secretary John Connally, the United States began to be more assertive about its economic interests.

But as long as the Soviet threat loomed, the government was still inclined to give precedence to security concerns. President Bush himself adhered to this definition of U.S. security. Only under political pressure in his last year in office did he begin to waver. His January 1992 trip to Japan was first intended to review the U.S.-Japan security relationship but ended up being a lobbying excursion for U.S. automakers.

In contrast, President Clinton has placed short-term American economic interests ahead of any broader issues of foreign policy. In Asia, trade has taken precedence over security. Relations with Europe have been dominated by economic concerns. After the Bosnian Serbs rejected a peace plan last May, the president lamented, "I felt really badly because I don't want to have to spend more time on [Bosnia] than is absolutely necessary, because what I got elected to do was to get Americans to look at our own problems."

* International security as indivisible: During the first part of the 20th century, most nations conducted foreign policy and economic relations on a piecemeal, bilateral basis. But the Great Depression and World War II convinced the United States to change its approach. After World War II the government promoted the idea that the nations of Western Europe and Japan were part of an integrated trading and security system in which a threat to one part was a threat to the whole.

The new security system was overtly justified by the Soviet threat, but its purpose went beyond that of containing communism. The United States was as worried about the emergence of rival trading blocs in Europe and Asia as it was about Soviet troops crossing the Rhine. Some took this concept of indivisibility to extremes, seeing every minor conflict as a struggle between the free world and communism, between free trade and protectionism; Mr. Bush himself invoked indivisibility in justifying U.S. intervention in Kuwait.

But in Bosnia President Clinton has repudiated this concept. He has treated it as a regional conflict that should be resolved, if at all, by the European powers. It is a conflict, Under Secretary of State Peter Tarnoff explained, in which "other regional players have a great stake" and should make "the very hard decisions on the commitment of men and women and resources."

Mr. Clinton's position assumes the division of the world into semi-autonomous regions in which each region's "players" are responsible for maintaining order. With the Cold War over, Mr. Clinton evidently believes the United States can return to its 19th-century strategy of picking and choosing among conflicts.

* The great-power basis of multilateralism: As World War II drew to a close, Franklin Roosevelt promoted the idea of a new international order that would be organized by the "four policemen" -- the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union and China -- acting as the executive committee of a new United Nations. He rejected schemes for a new supra national U.N. in which the nations of the world, voting equally, would have an air force at their disposal to settle conflicts.

Though Roosevelt's plan for the four policemen perished in the Cold War, the United States still followed his general approach. In multilateral actions, it took ultimate responsibility for objectives and execution. The United States also backed the U.N. but insisted decisions be lodged in the Security Council, not the General Assembly. Though American multilateralism broke down in Southeast Asia, it succeeded in Europe and East Asia. During Desert Storm, President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker seemed to be laying the basis for a new post-Cold War multilateralism.

President Clinton and Secretary of State Warren Christopher have repeatedly proclaimed the virtues of multilateralism, but in practice they have subverted it.

In Europe the administration proposed joint action in Bosnia but then backed off at a hint of opposition, contending that its acquiescence signified an embrace of unity. In fact, it was aiding in the breakdown of the Western alliance. The United States was ruling out any possibility of multilateral action and any progression from an American-led to a more equally shared security policy. It was not so much multilateralism as abnegationism.

* The democratic objectives of foreign policy: American foreign policy has always combined some measure of realism and idealism -- the defense of national security and economic interest with the attempt to extend democracy and freedom throughout the world. At times, the U.S. has subordinated one to the other, but at the nation's finest moments it has fused the two approaches within an understanding that by making the world more democratic, it was also making it more peaceful and prosperous.

Conversely, the U.S. believed that by discouraging authoritarian regimes -- especially those based on virulent nationalism, racism or messianic communism -- it was making the outbreak of war less likely.

Mr. Clinton gave voice to America's democratic aspirations during the campaign, criticizing President Bush for subordinating the pursuit of "the global democratic revolution" to "old balance-of-power strategies." "No America foreign policy can succeed if it slights our commitment to democracy," he declared in Milwaukee on October 1. But as president, Mr. Clinton has largely ignored the cause of "global democratic revolution," whether in China, Haiti or the former Yugoslavia. Russia has been the lone exception.

Mr. Clinton has not embraced the kind of Realpolitik he attributed to President Bush. Instead, he has subordinated American foreign policy to what Lenin called "economism" -- the relentless pursuit of short-term economic gain. Mr. Clinton's China policy has not reflected Metternich or Kissinger, but rather the National Association of Manufacturers. His Balkan inaction has been justified by Bosnia's seeming irrelevance to current American economic ills. He has not merely abandoned the idealistic component of American foreign policy; he has abandoned the high concept of foreign policy itself.

To President Clinton's credit, he has recognized the need for a new international economic strategy to deal with the emergence of European and Asian trading blocs, as evidenced in his attempt to reduce America's budget deficit while pressuring Japan to reduce its trade surpluses.

But Mr. Clinton has combined an active and militant economic strategy with a passive and phlegmatic diplomacy. He has hectored the Europeans for restricting bids by American telecommunications companies while allowing NATO to disintegrate under the impact of Bosnia. He has blasted the Japanese government for not accepting bids from American computer companies while failing to link the broader U.S. demand for Japanese economic concessions to American willingness to retain its security role in Asia. Instead of seeking a grand bargain with the Japanese, he has simply sought a bargain.

Similarly, Mr. Clinton has allowed his China policy to be dictated by domestic lobbies rather than by the need to counter China's growing military presence. It is not in America's interest for East Asia to return to old hostilities or to move under Japan's influence toward becoming a closed trading system. Yet by failing to emphasize security relations, Mr. Clinton is increasing the likelihood of these outcomes.

President Clinton has acknowledged that America's economic woes have limited the nation's ability to project its power overseas and have made it more important than ever to create multilateral alliances in which it allies share an increasing burden of military costs. But the United States will not be able to achieve that objective in a single stroke -- and certainly not by adopting a strategy of regional autonomy, unilateralism or deference to the U.N. The United States remains the world's most powerful military and economic power. As the conflict in Bosnia has demonstrated, when the United States stands aside, old rivalries, latent during the cold war, reassert themselves.

Taken as a whole, President Clinton's policy of narrowly conceived retrenchment has reinforced the entropic tendencies in the world and discredited those forces and institutions that might have laid the basis for a new multilateral security.

In abandoning a prime role for foreign policy, Mr. Clinton has forsaken exactly what he criticized President Bush for lacking -- the so-called "vision thing." Americans have with rare exceptions seen themselves as having a special role in the world -- in the 18th century as a New Jerusalem, and then in the 20th century as the champion of a new democratic and prosperous world.

Democrats from Franklin Roosevelt to John Kennedy played a principal role in forging that vision, but Mr. Clinton, who claims to be their heir, has replaced their pursuit of high principle with the accountant's balance sheet and the banker's safe deposit box. He has encouraged an obsession with narrow economic achievement and economic goals that he will not be able to meet -- no matter how well he governs. In turning his back on foreign policy, he has only made his failure at home more likely.

This article is excerpted from The New Republic.

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