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Defining the 'National Interest'


A war for control of U.S. foreign policy rages in Washington -- and the first casualty could be the Clinton presidency. But the ultimate loser may be America's ability to come to terms with global change and remain the world's most dynamic society.

Last month, the House of Representatives passed GOP-sponsored legislation that would reorganize the foreign-affairs bureaucracy, cut overseas aid, limit U.S. involvement in U.N. peacekeeping operations and redirect U.S. policy toward Bosnia and a host of other countries.

The Senate, where Republicans also hold the majority, is almost certain to pass similar legislation. The stage will thus be set for a showdown with President Clinton, who has declared he will veto the House version.

Republicans are right to criticize the Clinton administration's enduring commitment to old-style Wilsonian internationalism, which often expects the American people to rally behind efforts to defend abstract principles and sympathize with unfamiliar people in distant places.

They are also right to demand a stricter accounting of how increasingly scarce resources are allocated. And they are right to pressure the foreign-policy bureaucracy to reorganize itself.

But the neo-nationalist alternatives the Republicans are offering are not the answer.

While it would be premature to speak of a Republican consensus on foreign policy, party leaders ranging from Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., to Patrick J. Buchanan appear to be converging on three points. They make "the national interest" the lodestar of policy; favor unilateral action over multilateral cooperation, and prefer old instruments to carry out policy, especially force and traditional state-to-state diplomacy.

In today's world, the idea of "the national interest" is pure nostalgia. Even on its own terms, we are now more secure than ever. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. military might is unmatched. Our potential adversaries are mostly third-rate military powers with fragile societies, weak economies and limited technological bases. They can certainly threaten U.S. interests, but none is in a position to threaten our national survival.

More fundamentally, the idea of "the national interest" assumes a core set of interests that are of relatively equal importance to most Americans. This assumption is implicit in statements by Senator Dole and other Republicans that the United States did ** not have a national interest at stake in Haiti, but does have one in Bosnia and Ukraine.

In today's America, however, one person's definition of the national interest is seldom the same as another's. Haiti and South Africa are every bit as important to African Americans as Ireland is to Irish Americans, or Israel is to American Jews -- or Bosnia is to Mr. Dole.

Similarly, Americans' views of the relative importance of U.S. ties with China, Cuba, Mexico and Poland varies depending upon whether they live in San Francisco, Miami, San Antonio or Chicago. And, contrary to neo-nationalist beliefs, there is no standard by which one group's perception of the national interest can be credited and another's disregarded.

For all these reasons, the Republican effort to use "the national interest" as a criterion to decide when and where we should get involved is unlikely to be any more successful than the Clinton administration's embrace of "enlargement."

The Republican conviction that a renewed commitment to unilateralism will enable us to avoid foreign-policy disasters, and more effectively promote U.S. interests, is equally flawed. The argument that the Clinton administration has allowed U.N. bureaucrats to use U.S. resources to serve non-U.S. interests is a total myth. In all the cases that are most frequently cited as proof -- Haiti, Rwanda and Somalia, for example -- Washington led far more than it followed.

More fundamentally, however, the Republican return to unilateralism makes no sense in a world that is becoming ever more closely connected. More and more of the problems that most affect the everyday lives of ordinary Americans are beyond the ability of any one nation to control, even one as large and powerful as the United States.

Finally, Republican plans to emphasize military power and tough-talk diplomacy are shortsighted. We are, as both Mr. Clinton and the Republicans like to declare, "the world's only remaining military superpower." But it is unclear how that power can be used to help hard-pressed American families. And even if we significantly increase defense spending, as the Republicans are proposing, and begin again to brandish our big sticks, it doesn't automatically follow that the world would be a safer place for Americans.

One reason is that economics are now a critical factor in the security equation and military power doesn't translate into economic influence.

Economically, we once were but are no longer the world's only superpower. Instead, we are first among several equals and a growing number of near-equals. This being the case, it's surprising that the Republican legislation working its way through Congress does not contain any proposals to strengthen the conduct of U.S. economic diplomacy.

The reason is that the neo-nationalist consensus doesn't extend to economic matters. Some Republican leaders like Dole, and most of the old guard in the Senate, are unabashed free traders, while others like GOP presidential candidate Buchanan and many House freshman are ardent protectionists.

If neither liberal internationalism nor neo-nationalism is viable, what's the alternative? A good starting point would be to replace the idea of "the national interest" with the principle that *T Washington's first priority should be to address issues with the greatest direct impact on the everyday lives of most ordinary Americans.

In addition, we should stop arguing over what is or isn't in the national interest and accept the fact that we are going to have to live with substantial disagreements. Once we do so, Washington could concentrate on finding ways to enable different groups and different regions of the country to promote their particular interests without placing undue burdens and demands on the rest of the country.

The debate over multilateralism is a dead-end. Today's foreign-policy success requires collaboration among a wide array of actors, including national, state and local governments, non-governmental organizations, private associations, religious groups, business and international organizations. Our goal should be to promote flexible, result-oriented partnerships that promote the interests and preserve the sovereignty of individuals rather than the power and prerogatives of governments and bureaucrats.

If Congress were to adopt similar principles, it would be in a much better position to legislate a foreign-policy revolution.

Michael Clough is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Affairs.

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