PARIS -- The Clinton administration enters its own and the century's final year with a foreign policy record of few major accomplishments, and serious miscalculations.
On the positive side are the intervention to end the war in Bosnia, a weighty contribution to peace in Ireland (both prompted by domestic political pressures), measures to stabilize Macedonia, the (insecure) Kosovo cease-fire and mediation in the Cyprus affair.
The failures include Russia, an Iraq policy that has steadily worsened the Middle Eastern situation, a destructive failure of nerve and political courage in dealing with Israel and Palestinian peace, a business and trade-driven China policy that has foolishly and perhaps fatefully damaged U.S. relations with Japan, a politically hyped African initiative without substance, which has already vanished, and an implicitly hegemonic approach to Europe, NATO expansion and NATO policy redefinition, which may produce a trans-Atlantic crisis as early as this spring.
The result is that despite its unchallenged military power, the United States is in a sharply diminished position from that which it held 10 years ago, when the Soviet Union was disintegrating and the Communist nations of Central and Eastern Europe were freeing themselves from Soviet domination.
Then, U.S. leadership of the industrial nations was respected, and the people of the former Communist states looked to the United States with unquestioning admiration, anxious to adopt U.S. social and economic models.
George Bush was able to create a gulf war coalition that included the major Arab governments because these had come to regard the United States as a reasonably fair-minded arbiter in an Israeli-Palestinian conflict that seemed at last on the way to resolution.
Middle East crisis
Today Israel is in slow-motion crisis, and the peace process is moribund. China is jailing political dissidents and ignores U.S. economic concerns. Japan finds itself hectored by China and rebuffed by the United States. Washington is widely believed by Russians to bear a major share of responsibility for the catastrophe which has overtaken their country.
There and in much of Asia, Washington's intellectually shallow and politically naive economic prescriptions are condemned for having promoted -- indeed imposed -- an unregulated and speculative form of international capitalism that resulted in economic crisis and political unrest in Russia, Asia and in parts of Latin America.
What went wrong?
The most important source of trouble has been ideology. The Clinton administration has been the most ideological administration since the 1960s and early 1970s, when Washington was acting on a Cold War conception, with apocalyptic implications, of terminal global struggle against Communism, and small nations were treated as expendable.
The Clinton security ideology is a mutation of the earlier ideology that has placed in Communism's old role a new amalgam of Muslim fundamentalism, diversely motivated terrorist movements and individuals, despots in small countries designated as "rogue" states, and anarchical political and social breakdown elsewhere.
These forces collectively represent "international disorder" and a supposed threat of international aggression with weapons of mass destruction, nuclear or biological terrorism, and political blackmail.
The more unspecific and intangible the world's current dangers are represented to be, the more comprehensive and invasive, and even extra-legal, the U.S. conception of international response becomes. Washington has moved from the documented danger to the speculative, the specific to the metaphysical. This automatically invites failure, since there is no security in this realm of threat. Existence itself is dangerous.
The Clinton economic ideology has been that of unregulated global market supremacy, which contributed to ruining Russia and to the Asian crisis. The ideology of market supremacy also has a metaphysical character, in that it holds the market by definition benevolent and self-correcting.
Market supremacy is confused with democracy. Thus Washington's conviction that democracies by nature are capitalist, and capitalist societies are by nature democratic, which is demonstrably untrue. Also untrue is the administration's conviction that market liberalization leads to political liberalization -- as in today's China!
A second fundamental error in foreign policy may be called the personal relations fallacy. This administration, like its recent predecessors, conceives of foreign policy and diplomacy in terms of friendship among leaders, and intervenes to promote leadership by chosen individuals in countries of which Washington understands little.
Instead of dealing with China or Russia in terms of American national interest, while leaving those countries' internal politics to their own determination, Washington has consistently lent its own prestige and support to individual actors in foreign political struggles. This does them no good, while making the United States responsible for their failures.
Policy decisions ordinarily are taken under the pressure of events, in a context of Mr. Clinton's perceived electoral interests, the interests of corporate campaign contributors, and bureaucratic interest when White House attention is elsewhere (with Pentagon interests excessively influential, taking advantage of Mr. Clinton's Vietnam record).
The importance of ideology and the personal fallacy lies in their providing the music, so to speak, to which these decisions have to be set. In this administration the quality of the music has been very poor, with effect upon the nation's international position, a worsening one. A year remains to recover lost ground, but Mr. Clinton has other things on his mind. The music is not likely to be rewritten.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 1/14/99