World Will Put Demands On Clinton Presidency
Middle East, Europe, Africa, Asia will take time from the home front
WASHINGTON — IN his vision of an ideal presidency, President-elect Bill Clinton would have the world mind its own business for the next four years while his administration, undistracted, devotes its full energies to economic recovery at home.
In this wistful scenario, even the venerable State Department would help, turning American embassies into mini-chambers of commerce to promote US investments and exports abroad.
Alas, as any former president could attest, the world is unlikely to be so cooperative. Already, political and humanitarian crises in Europe and Africa demand Mr. Clinton's attention. Pressing decisions await elsewhere, from Cambodia to Haiti. And as he is drawn into a whirl of summitry and state visits, Clinton may find that he has less time than he imagined to devote to domestic affairs.
"The world isn't going to stand still while the new administration tries to focus on domestic policy," says one State Department official.
Clinton's biggest concerns could well be in central Europe, where unrest most involves United States interests. He will be under pressure to back up tough campaign rhetoric with stronger, 11th-hour efforts to save Bosnia from Serbian aggression.
And ethnic conflict and economic hardship in several former Soviet republics are tinder for explosions that could demand a US response. Clinton will also have to take care of unfinished business with Russia, which has failed to deliver on an agreement to begin dismantling long-range nuclear missiles.
Clinton's most promising diplomatic opportunity will lie in bringing ongoing Middle East peace talks to fruition. But nudging the peace process along could prove as demanding and time-consuming for Clinton as it did for President Bush.
As he settles into the Oval Office, Clinton will find that, as leader of the world's remaining superpower, his limited personal time will be required to help resolve a host of other issues. Among them: a faltering peace process in Cambodia, famine in East Africa, and the controversial issue of accepting refugees from the chaos of nearby Haiti.
Through his long campaign, Clinton emphasized the theme of "change." The fact is that when it comes to the bread-and-butter issues of diplomacy - relations with Europe, aid to the former Soviet republics, even dealing with Iraq's recalcitrant Saddam Hussein - continuity, not change, may well be the rule.
"The vocabulary may change and there may be a period of reinventing the wheel, but - trade policy aside - the basic substance of American foreign policy won't be that different," says the State Department official.
Although like Bush he advocates free trade, Clinton nevertheless is expected to be much quicker to impose quotas and tariffs to retaliate against nations accused of unfair trade practices. His inclination will be reinforced by a Democratic Congress, where anger over widening trade imbalances with countries like Japan and China is running high.
"The notion has grown up in this country that if you do any thing to restrict trade it's protectionist. That's a profound mistake," Senate majority leader George Mitchell (D) told a Monitor breakfast recently. "What you need is reciprocity, but you don't need to defeat your own interests by creating the impression that no matter what others do, you will not respond in any way."
Another exception to the rule of continuity will be global environmental issues, largely ignored by the Reagan and Bush administrations. One bellwether of Clinton's intentions would be a decision to sign the Global Biodiversity Convention, approved by 153 nations at last summer's Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
"The Biodiversity Convention will be the indicator of how seriously different the new administration will be," says Gareth Porter of the Environmental and Energy Study Institute.
Environmental groups are pressing for a coordinating agency inside the White House, similar to the National Security Council, that would oversee global environmental and sustainable-development issues. Clinton is also likely to break new ground by placing more stress on moral issues, including the promotion of human rights and democracy around the world.
"In his campaign speeches, Clinton outlined something that recognizes values and support for human rights," notes Georgetown University government professor Robert Leiber. "This will be a much more central element in American foreign policy."
As President Carter discovered, morality and pragmatism do not always coincide. By June, Clinton will have to decide whether to reverse Bush administration policy by holding the extension of China's most favored nation (MFN) trading privileges hostage to human-rights reforms.
Human-rights groups could be so benefitted, but denying MFN to China could also be a setback for the very political and economic reformers in China the US has long tried to encourage.