A New Foreign Policy Debate


President Clinton has enjoyed a run of good luck in foreign policy. The unexpected death of Kim Il Sung helped avert, for the moment, a crisis over North Korea's nuclear-weapons program. Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, new resident of Panama, stepped down instead of taunting the United States into a bloody invasion of Haiti. And Saddam Hussein of Iraq made Mr. Clinton's day with provocative military deployment to the border of Kuwait followed by withdrawal in the face of the U.S. response. If you listen closely, you can hear the sound of hands rubbing in satisfaction in the White House.

But each of those affairs could have unfolded far differently and may pose dangerous choices in the future. All leave unresolved issues that have not been adequately debated within the United States or internationally.

The easing of a confrontation with North Korea hides the lack of consensus among major powers on nuclear non-proliferation. The non-combat character of the intervention in Haiti saved Mr. Clinton from a collision with Congress over the perennial issue of presidential war-making power. Had he launched a hot invasion of Haiti without congressional approval, Mr. Clinton would have defied the Constitution, turned foreign policy into a bitterly partisan issue and weakened the nation's capacity to act responsibly in international affairs.

Meanwhile, Iraq's troop movements reveal the dangerous instability in the oil region of the Middle East and the diminished willingness of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council to work together.

On these three issues there is no cause for rejoicing, only for short-term relief. More important, and more distressing, is the absence since the end of the Cold War of a fundamental re-examination of the goals and capacities of the United States against which these specific issues and others -- such as the continuing war in Bosnia, genocide in Rwanda, and the unratified General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade -- can be judged. It is not acceptable to say the world has become such a confusing place that each issue can be dealt with only in isolation and when circumstances force a response.

There is always a tendency in government to be content to get through each day without disaster or to limit forward thinking to the date of the next election. This habit is ingrained, but it is still a dereliction of responsibility by Congress and the administration. The convening of the new Congress in January 1995 would be an opportune time, long overdue, for searching hearings and broad public discussion. One would hope that the current abatement of a crisis atmosphere would still prevail -- but even if there is a new headline hot spot, the discussions should proceed.

These hearings should demand that witnesses from the administration, the private sector and academia focus on conditions likely to prevail in the world 25 years from now if different courses of action or inaction are pursued by the United States and other nations and institutions internationally.

The hearings should also require that the connections among separate issues be illuminated -- between regional and global security; between human rights and sovereign rights of governments; between free trade and the maintenance of economic autonomy; between national interests unilaterally pursued and the future of the United Nations, and always between alternative visions of how the United States should act.

There have been comparable searching debates in the past -- for example, over resistance to German and Japanese aggression in 1939-1941, and over the reconstruction of Europe and the containment of the Soviet Union in the early years of the Cold War.

Those debates forced people to look ahead and contemplate the consequences of action or inaction. They elevated foreign policy above squabbling over partisan advantage. They produced fundamental thinking and clarified alternatives. They educated American leaders, because nothing produces more learning than the necessity of explaining complex issues to others.

Skeptics will dismiss this proposal as naive and predict that such hearings, if held, would waste precious time, produce banal generalizations or would degenerate into a non-constructive struggle for domestic political advantage.

Skeptics could also note that Mr. Clinton and his top advisers have shown no taste for more than the most superficial review of foreign policy and the president himself too often acts as if he wanted no part of foreign policy; that congressional leaders have been inert on the Democratic side and negative on the Republican; that the media devote infinitely more time to a celebrity on trial for murder than to all international issues combined, and that many Americans seem to be drifting into an implicit isolationism -- all the more reason to demand the kind of sustained discussion on which to base an effective foreign policy with comprehensive goals and a national commitment to supply the means required to pursue them.

Countless individual writers and symposiums sponsored by universities and think tanks have addressed the nature of the post-Cold War world, but the efforts have been disconnected from the real world of governing -- of committing lives and treasure, of setting priorities, of educating legislators and the public.

There is, of course, no guarantee that a broad national debate will lead to a coherent understanding of the issues before the country. But the absence of debate will guarantee incoherence, the continuation of stumbling improvisation both by the administration and Congress, media infatuation with trivia and public responses to events shaped more by images of the moment than an understanding of how a changing world affects the national and human interest.

Gaddis Smith, a diplomatic historian, is director of the Yale Center for International and Area Studies.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad