Last week, U.S. President Bill Clinton set out his foreign-policy framework and goals for the last two years of his term. In a speech to California business and political leaders, he urged Americans to “embrace the inexorable logic of globalization.” For Mr. Clinton, that translates into a policy of active engagement with the world. It is a reassuring message for anyone who feared a U.S. retreat from the many dangers and uncertainties that can be found throughout the world today. There is just one small matter: There are very few people who actually fear such an outbreak of isolationism. The more pressing concern of American friends and allies is the Clinton administration’s perceived inability to pick its priorities. The unwillingness to do just that is the chief threat to U.S. engagement overseas, and there are few signs that Mr. Clinton has responded to this challenge.
The president’s logic is hard to fault. The march of globalization is inexorable. U.S. interests — like those of many other nations — are tied to events taking place half a world away. The U.S. has, by virtue of its economic and military power, a unique responsibility to the world. Indeed, it makes far more sense to stop conflicts before they fester and spread.
But even the United States’ resources are limited, and, as has become increasingly evident in recent years, massive military strength and a roaring economy are no substitutes for sheer determination and a willingness to fight and die for a cause. The administration’s failure to recognize the limits of U.S. power will preclude the effective use of that power in the years to come.
Mr. Clinton is right to say that the U.S. has the opportunity — if not the solemn responsibility — “to shape a more peaceful, prosperous, democratic world in the 21st century.” But how will this be done? In his speech, Mr. Clinton vowed to strengthen regional alliances, such as those with Japan and Europe, and to build new relationships with Russia and the former Soviet Republics. Integrating Russia and China into the new international order are among his chief foreign-policy concerns, as are fighting terrorism and defusing regional conflicts. To that end, Mr. Clinton called for support for a U.S. presence in the peacekeeping force in Kosovo.
At the same time, the president expressed his frustration over the lack of progress in South Asia and the ongoing conflict in the eastern Mediterranean between Turkey and Greece. The ability of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to frustrate the will of the United Nations, the U.S. and its allies is also galling, as is North Korean stubbornness and Pyongyang’s penchant for surprises.
What remains disturbingly unclear is the Clinton administration’s ability to see how the pieces fit together. For example, the U.S. commitment to NATO’s eastward expansion looks good, but it seems to reflect domestic U.S. political pressures more than worries about European peace and security — especially since expansion flies so flagrantly in the face of Russian fears of encirclement. Is it any wonder that after having flouted Moscow’s concerns, the U.S. is unable to get Russia to cooperate in dealings with Kosovo or Baghdad?
Even more troubling is the other side of U.S. exceptionalism: a continuing reluctance to accept international norms or standards of behavior. In the last year, the U.S. has refused to sign the international treaty banning land mines and balked at joining the convention establishing an international court of criminal justice. It claims the right to alone determine when Mr. Saddam has violated U.N. resolutions.
Each undercuts U.S. efforts to get other nations to observe and abide by international norms. Washington’s complaints about India and Pakistan’s nuclear blasts ring hollow when the U.S. continues its own series of nuclear tests. Similarly, charges that Mr. Saddam has thumbed his nose at the U.N. sound foolish as long as the U.S. refuses to pay its arrears. Finally, American efforts to build an open, liberal international trade system are hampered by unilateral sanctions against trade partners, embargoes and the application and enforcement of U.S. laws overseas.
In each case, the U.S. has failed to balance its short-term needs — usually in the form of a domestic political payoff — with the long-range goal of making a more peaceful and stable world. These are the kinds of priorities Mr. Clinton must balance. There are few signs that he is ready to take up the challenge. He must : Far more than his foreign-policy legacy depends on it.
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