Clinton's foreign policy: In search of a moral strategy


DURING a casual conversation with a few of us at a pre-Christmas Washington party, White House counselor David Gergen spoke some words that in many ways symbolized this year now ending.

"We don't yet have a theory of the use of force," he said thoughtfully.

He was right, of course. If there was one trait that characterized the foreign policy of the United States during 1993, it was a disastrous confusion about what principles should lie behind the use of American power. From Somalia to Bosnia to Haiti and (the next potential disaster spot) North Korea, the unanswerable questions from an administration without moral foreign policy moorings were always the hoary journalistic ones, "Who, what, when, where and why."

But our sadly unfortunate experience in foreign policy this first year is also, I believe, matched by commensurate experiences at home. Listening to the underlying strains of our national conversations, we hear certain words reverberating over and over again: "theory, principle, values, ethics, morals, the spiritual and, finally, resolution."

In short, from Russia and Eastern Europe to Western Europe and the United States, this has been a year in which people have been searching for principled authority and actions able to cut through social and institutional confusion, to relieve the personal anomie, and to reconstitute a workable society on the basis of moral strictures.

We expected this from the former Soviet Union. As it and its grandiose universalist ideology collapsed in the late 1980s and early '90s, the remaining parcels of its empire -- Russia foremost -- were left spiritually bankrupt. But us?

We did not expect the intellectual confusion and social decomposition here. We had won, right? The truth is that we had always underestimated how the Cold War exhausted us, leaving us, as with a debilitating disease, also vulnerable to spiritual emptiness.

In the foreign field, we have seen a total lack of awareness of

power principles. When leaders cannot define whether Somalia or Bosnia or Haiti is most important to us, the American people give up wanting to act at all and turn inward. (Clue: Bosnia and Haiti are clearly in the American national interest; Somalia, which ironically got all the American troops, clearly is not.)

The situation is similar on the national scale. Just before Christmas, Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University came out with a survey purporting to show that America is no longer a society of joiners. Only a third of American adults have worked for a charity in the last month, and 34 percent of the nation does not belong to any group of any kind, etc.

While this is unfortunate and even disturbing, particularly given the grand American heritage of citizen service, it should not be at all surprising. For we are at a stalemate in American social policy similar to that of American foreign policy.

I believe Americans, myself included, are tired of being asked to give, for instance to the homeless, simply to keep poor people instead of helping them to progress. I'm convinced that most Americans would do and give much more for society so long as there is a moral and transformational element to the giving, through which asocial people or sick people are helped to become social and responsible beings.

So this year of 1993, swiftly waning, has been a curious year. On the one hand, we have seen remarkable moves toward peace in the Middle East, in South Africa and even in ravaged Cambodia. We have seen extraordinary advances in science, even the isolating of genes for colon cancer and Alzheimer's, and perhaps even for breast cancer.

On the other side of the ledger, we have seen the continued dissolution of the former Soviet Union, and its military's deliberate use of threat and terror on its southern borders to keep the empire together. Most significant is the search across the globe for values and principles to build worlds anew and to break the logjams that are holding us back in Bosnia and on the streets of Detroit.

This is, finally, a hopeful sign. For in this country thinkers such as William Bennett, James Q. Wilson and Charles Murray are

realizing the dangers and are addressing these issues.

This probably means that 1993 was the turnaround year for thinking through where our post-Cold War society is going next. Let us at least pray so.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

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