NEW YORK -- President Clinton would be happier if America had no foreign policy. Foreign affairs offer him political risk with an uncertain prospect for electoral gain.
He has tried to avoid having a foreign policy, substituting for it a commercial policy of trade expansion. Mickey Kantor and the late Ron Brown have been more important figures in his administration than Warren Christopher or Anthony Lake.
The former have acted with sovereign disregard for the political consequences of their aggressive tactics on the trade front. This is why Japanese-American relations had to be patched up during Mr. Clinton's visit to Tokyo. They still are not good, since nothing fundamental was changed by Mr. Clinton's rousing declarations of trans-Pacific partnership.
To the extent that the Clinton administration has had an active international policy, this mostly has amounted to what Michael Mandelbaum of Johns Hopkins cruelly has called foreign policy as social work: a vague and largely fruitless campaign to promote democracy and market economics in backward countries.
Bosnia is the big exception, and intervention there, with the use of American military power, was forced on a reluctant Mr. Clinton by the unlikely and inadvertent alliance of Bob Dole with Jacques Chirac.
The big American security commitments -- Japan, Europe, NATO, Russian reform -- continue out of political and bureaucratic inertia, and because change could be perilous. Events in Russia could take a very bad turn, however, and those in the Middle East already have, so that a real peace there seems further away than when Mr. Clinton took office. All this could have unhappy electoral consequences for the president.
One cannot call Mr. Clinton's reluctance to have a foreign policy isolationism, even though the popular temper in the United States today is very cool toward engagements abroad. Isolationism no longer is a useful word in this debate, as there is no way the United States now or in the future can isolate itself from international society.
Isolationism is not a policy option. In the 1920s and 1930s it was feasible and even intellectually defensible. The country was secure behind oceans, and was all but totally self-sufficient. It took Japan's attack on Hawaii to change the public mind.
Obviously the country today is neither physically secure from attack nor self-sufficient. The economy is crucially implicated abroad; industry relies on exports, and both industry and the federal government depend on foreign investment and finance. Retreat to American shores is impossible.
Yet Mr. Clinton is responding to a genuine national wariness and uncertainty about world affairs. The Chicago Council on Foreign Relations' polls on foreign-policy attitudes consistently show that Americans are very ambitious about American world leadership -- in principle. Their enthusiasm cools when costs and risks are cited.
This is both cause and, I should think, in part the result of the all but total abandonment of foreign news coverage by television and the press. If the public asked for serious international news, the papers and networks would provide it, as they did in the 1950s and 1960s. But as the public seems indifferent or uninterested, it is given what Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution calls foreign news as newspaper filler.
The news in an inch
This is a national phenomenon, with obvious and honorable exceptions, but a good example of what Mr. Hess is talking about is provided by the country's most popular newspaper, USA Today. On a typical recent day (Thursday, April 11) its domestic edition offered a front page report on "chaos in Liberia" and a human-interest story on Bosnian lovers. It otherwise furnished exactly seven inch-long foreign items: on a Chinese-French trade deal, a Scottish school victims' memorial, Argentine prison riots, mudslides in Bolivia, Rwandan refugees, Kurdish guerrillas and a decision by Peru to protect dolphins.
If that's how America sees the world, Mr. Clinton's reluctance to get involved is understandable. You don't run risks on issues virtually nobody has heard about, or cares about. For Washington, foreign policy now is a distraction from real politics, except when it goes wrong. And one way to try to keep it from going wrong, as Mr. Clinton demonstrates, is to have as little of it as possible.
But this is not being serious. The United States is a global superpower, and either will conduct itself well or badly in that role. There are large, intractable and dangerous possibilities, such as a Russia replunged into nationalism, a belligerent China, a hostile Europe and/or Japan, and Islamic societies in crisis.
Mr. Clinton's challenger, Senator Bob Dole, represents a moderate, and moderately competent, Republican foreign-policy tradition which takes pride in having no "vision" (or so President Bush once suggested) but which does know about power.
Post-Vietnam Democrats are mostly uncomfortable with power. Thus Mr. Clinton's effort to substitute human-rights crusade and trade policy for international politics. The best thing Mr. Clinton could do for himself, and the nation, if he is re-elected, would be to jettison the sentimentality about global democracy and free markets, and hire some people who have read history, others' as well as our own.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 4/22/96