PARIS — Paris.--When President Clinton's national-security adviser, Anthony Lake, in a recent interview, characterized the administration's foreign policy as "pragmatic neo-Wilsonianism," it was clear what has gone wrong. Neo-Wilsonianism is an attitude, not a program. It means that the goal is to "expand democracy" but "through a determined pragmatism" that takes account of practical obstacles.
Consider what this actually has meant since Mr. Clinton became president. First came the Somalia imbroglio, President Bush's poisoned parting gift to Mr. Clinton. Then Bosnia. Then Iraq and retaliation for the supposed assassination attempt on Mr. Bush. Then Haiti. Then the problem posed by North Korea's nuclear-arms programs.
In every case "expanding democracy" ran into practical obstacles and was, for reasons of pragmatism, abandoned. The administration's policy in Somalia now is simply to get out of the country as inconspicuously as possible by March, without further American casualties. Democracy will not expand to Somalia.
In Haiti, the return of the elected president, Jean- Bertrand Aristide, as agreed in the Governor's Island negotiations with Haiti's military rulers, was meant to advance democracy (even if his return would have been unlikely to advance it very far). However, practical obstacles in the form of Gen. Raoul Cedras and military police commander Michel Francois, have made that impossible. The United States has yielded.
Practical obstacles have turned American policy toward the Bosnian war into a farcical series of threats, retreats and embarrassed silences. No Washington-sponsored advance of democracy there.
Baghdad was bombarded by American missiles, but no consequent advance in democracy is apparent. North Korea has been threatened. There is, in fact, nothing within the practical power of Mr. Clinton and his government that will change the regime in either country.
This is the reason the administration is accused of hypocrisy and indecision. It has announced a principle of action that in each practical case has had to be abandoned. The Clinton people see this as a problem of communications. David Gergen, the Reagan-Bush administrations' image magician, now apparently is to have a permanent place in National Security Council deliberations. But you cannot communicate what is not there.
First of all, Woodrow Wilson had a program. The 28th president believed it possible to organize the nations of the world into a form of parliamentary government, and he used the power of the U.S. to bring into being this League of Nations. He also believed that the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires, which collapsed in 1918, should be replaced by sovereign nations created on the principle of ethnic self-determination. This again was a practical project, which he carried off successfully. Both the League of Nations and ethnic nationhood later turned out badly. "Wilsonianism" nonetheless was a practical policy that changed the world's political order.
The deputy foreign minister of one of the Central European countries, himself an intellectual and former dissident, said to me a few days ago that when George Bush and James Baker entered a room, he felt America's power in that room. When Bill Clinton and Anthony Lake come into a room, he feels himself comfortably back in the dissidents' cafe, ready for an all-night conversation about the meaning of things.
Stanley Hoffman of Harvard has said much the same thing, that the Clinton administration resembles an on-going academic seminar, with the press taking part, that never comes to a decision.
Certainly this administration talks too much, rambling on about what it might do or what again it might not do, changing course according to how people react. But its fundamental problem in foreign relations is that it has an attitude in place of a policy. There has to be a policy. If American military deployments in the Far East and Western Europe are to be reduced, what is the policy on security arrangements to replace them? What about Central European security? Is NATO to take responsibility or isn't it?
The future of Russia and of China will not be decided in Washington, but unconditional American support for Boris Yeltsin is a substitute for policy, not a policy itself (and may in any case prove unsustainable, according to what Mr. Yeltsin does). Toward China, Washington vacillates between human-rights advocacy and considerations of economic practicality. What happens politically if NAFTA or GATT fails, or if both of them fail?
These are not image problems. They are practical problems that have to be solved through agreements with other countries or by independent American initiatives. The image will change when the reality changes. The trouble with Washington is that the Republicans understand power but are not very smart. The Democrats are smarter than the Republicans, but since Lyndon Johnson they have lost their understanding of power. This is why they are again in trouble.
William Pfaff's new book, "The Wrath of Nations: Civilization and the Furies of Nationalism," is published this week by Simon and Schuster, New York.