Washington.--The Clinton administration's foreign-policy problem is not that a plan is lacking but that its plan rests upon a misconception of reality. The plan is to "enlarge" the space occupied by democracy in the contemporary world. This rests upon an unrealistic assumption about the significance of events since the fall of communism and a confidence in the United States' "nation-building" capacities that developments in Somalia and Haiti have again shown to be unwarranted.
Mr. Clinton has appointed two men experienced in foreign affairs to his principal foreign-policy posts: Warren Christopher as secretary of state and Anthony Lake as national-security adviser. Both are experienced staff officers; neither has demonstrated original thought or policy vision. They are to this administration what Dean Rusk was to the Johnson administration, which is not a comforting reflection. Mr. Rusk uncompromisingly carried out a misconceived American policy on Vietnam, never questioning that it might be mistaken.
Mr. Clinton's people, like Mr. Rusk, believe in a kind of domino theory. Mr. Rusk believed communism to be a unitary and expanding world force. The Clinton people believe that interlinked democracy and market economics are steadily enlarging their sway not only over the former communist countries but in Africa, Asia and Latin America as well. Their view combines the triumphalism of the late Reagan-Bush years, when communism did crumble, with the naive assumption, made fashionable in 1991-92, that history is "finishing" in universal democracy, market economics and something closely resembling the American way of life. Believing this, they see American policy as essentially a matter of cooperating with the inevitable.
This supposedly involves multilateral action through a reformed United Nations and "nation-building" in the backward countries, accelerate the latter's march toward democracy and the free marketplace. American policy today in Somalia and Haiti is conceived in such terms. The perceived problems are merely instrumental. The right methods have not yet been found, but the search is on. The American and Canadian forces blocked from landing in Haiti in mid-October were meant to "professionalize" army and police in that country, so as to turn them into depoliticized agencies of democratic government. This was framed as a six-month assignment. In Somalia, the U.S. Army Rangers' now-abandoned assignment was to "arrest" the man identified as the obstacle to democratic development in that country.
None of this is intellectually serious. There certainly has been a turn toward Western political and economic ideas after communism's collapse, since market economics provides the only surviving model for industrial society.
But to see democracy as necessary to markets, and the two together as an irresistible force in contemporary politics, is to ignore the role of power and greed in history, as well as the immense barriers that exist to transnational transfers of social assumptions and institutions.
Africa has seen ostensibly democratic reforms, leading to free elections in some countries. It has in recent days and weeks seen elected governments overturned by military coups in Burundi and Nigeria, attempted coups in Sierra Leone and Chad, sham elections in Togo and Cameroon, and stubborn defiance of democracy from America's former client in Zaire, "Marshal" Mobutu. The UNITA movement in Angola, formerly sponsored by the United States, now is fighting democracy there. The democratic "wave" in Africa turns out to concern Benin, Zambia and Ghana -- and South Africa. And whether the extraordinary changes that have taken place in South Africa will result in a lastingly democratic society remains to be seen.
A totalitarian form of nationalism has taken the place of communism in Serbia and Croatia, and quite possibly will emerge elsewhere in southeastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. We do not yet know whether Boris Yeltsin will install lasting democratic institutions in Russia. China successfully combines a form of market economics with despotic or arbitrary government -- as did Pinochet's Chile, Brazil and South Korea under military rule, apartheid South Africa, Taiwan under Kuomintang rule and as Singapore does today. We have recently been told by several Asian governments that Asians prefer it that way. The United States' partner in the prospective North American Free Trade Area, Mexico, has not admitted a serious challenge to its ruling party since 1929.
It is characteristic of Americans to believe in general theories of historical progress, leading toward the democracy Americans already enjoy. This belief persistently has been made the basis for the country's foreign policy, more often than not with disappointing results. The supposed Realpolitik that led Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon to support military dictatorships in Greece, Vietnam, Cambodia and much of Latin America is repellent to this administration, as it was to the Carter administration.
However, one can reject a cynical policy and still make unsentimental judgments on how and why governments and people behave. This is what the Clinton foreign-policy staff seems unable to recognize. One can reject policy cynicism without rejecting realism. This is a serious concern, because if Mr. Clinton's people take the world as other than it is, failure is inevitable, whatever their good intentions.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.