LONDON — While the United States adjusts to the idea of having George W. Bush as its new president, his predecessor has been treading the international stage for the last time — at least in a presidential capacity. Bill Clinton’s “final” visit to Britain received immense coverage, some of it almost adulatory.
What are the departing messages from this eloquent man? The first is that America must remain fully involved in global issues as the world’s one remaining superpower, as he maintains it has been on his eight-year watch.
Some commentators have sought to contrast this basic stance with the alleged insularity of Bush, who is said never to have traveled in Europe and to be ignorant of the finer subtleties of cosmopolitan affairs.
But this is almost certainly an exaggeration. Election utterances are bound to have a domestic flavor and no one really knows where the Bush priorities will lie. Anyway, U.S. involvement may not always be an unquestionable benefit.
When it is of the U.S.-centric variety — projecting American interests and perspectives onto everyone else regardless — then it can be a very mixed blessing. People forget that U.S. foreign policy during the first Clinton administration was pretty disastrous.
In Bosnia, the U.S. tried to strike an unwise balance between oppressed and oppressor. Only after the horror of the Srebrenica massacre did it dawn on the White House that decisive action had to be taken against the Serb-backed killers and moves made to arm the hapless Bosnian Muslims.
In the Middle East, Washington’s determination to “handle” the Israeli-Palestine peace process has led to the present chaos. In Kosovo, the idea that the U.S. would conduct an aerial war while others did the dirty work on the ground has led to the current unstable situation.
Meanwhile, on European affairs Clinton and his entourage have blown hot and cold, failing to understand the complex aspects of European unification, demanding that the Europeans get together but complaining loudly when they do, especially on trade issues.
Even today, the outgoing Clinton team is sending mixed signals on the new European defense initiative, backing it some days and attacking it as a threat to the Atlantic alliance on others. On the other great security issue — whether the U.S. should go ahead with a new national antimissile defense, and what this would do to the whole nuclear-weapons debate — the Clinton administration has been unable to make up its mind.
As for Irish affairs, where Clinton has plunged in with personal enthusiasm, many would argue that he has not really understood all the issues. At Dundalk, an Irish Republican stronghold, Clinton was greeted by an ecstatic crowd while the British government looked on and wondered whether his visit would upset the already floundering peace process.
Finally, the other presidential message on this final tour — that globalization must not be allowed to divide the planet — also seems off key. This not really the right question. Globalization is at worst neutral, at best a powerful unifying force and an instrument for overcoming world poverty and division. By positing it as a threat, Clinton plays into the hands of the globalization “backlash” brigade that recently has tried to break up every international gathering.
Given this poor record of U.S. intervention over the past few years, a cynic might argue that it would have been better if Clinton’s policymakers had stayed at home.
But that would be the wrong message for Bush as he shapes his foreign policy. America needs to stay fully involved, but in a less bossy and dominating sort of way. Too many U.S. policymakers under Clinton have swallowed the myth that America is the sole superpower and, as such, should throw its weight around.
Actually, in the era of globalization, emerging bigness may no longer be the automatic passport to leadership and the U.S. is now probably far more constrained and more interdependent with the rest of the globe than the Clintonites appear to have grasped. It is a mighty democracy, but it is only one nation among many. U.S. diplomacy needs to become humbler in tone and more attuned to being a team player.
The Bush approach to the outside world — with its more cautious globalism and its priority on an America strong and confident within itself, with less sermonizing rhetoric and more realism — may turn out to be better suited to the 21st century than Clintonian activism. There is much room for improvement.
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