Vigorous Diplomacy Wins Kudos for Clinton
Praise for his policies on NATO, Bosnia, and Ireland boost president. But long-term record remains mixed as relations sour with Japan, China.
WASHINGTON — IN the past month, President Clinton played the saxophone and preached peace to adulatory crowds in northern Ireland. He pushed through a Bosnia peace agreement via diplomacy that would have made Harry Truman proud. And after years of hesitance he's finally beginning to act like the Big Dog of the Western alliance - to the relief of some spaniel-sized European allies, and the annoyance of others.
But a few high-profile weeks do not a Metternich make. The overall Clinton administration foreign-policy report card remains mixed, according to a number of US-based experts. Some of America's most important relationships, such as those with China and Japan, have deteriorated badly in the Clinton years. Others - notably the emerging semi-partnership with Russia - have received only episodic attention.
Frustrated by the autumn's endless budget battles, Mr. Clinton appears to have found a relative respite from congressional interference by focusing on foreign affairs. Yet that doesn't mean the president's reelection theme will be "It's diplomacy, stupid."
"I don't think Bill Clinton is going to become a world statesman," says Richard Ullman, a senior professor of international affairs at Princeton University. "His inclinations are still much more to look at domestic society."
In a recent Foreign Policy magazine survey, Mr. Ullman gave the Clinton administration an overall grade of "B" for its diplomatic efforts. That's not bad, the professor notes, given the difficulty of conducting foreign affairs in today's post-cold-war world.
"Showing improvement: Clinton is now awake in class," wrote Ullman in his magazine scorecard.
On individual subjects, Ullman gave the White House an "A" for its efforts in cobbling together an agreement intended to halt North Korea's nuclear program. If it holds together, the Korea pact will be cheap at the price, Ullman notes, contributing directly to the security of the US and some of its key allies.
Ullman also awarded Clinton a top grade for his overall nonproliferation program, and an "A-" for the administration's efforts in the Middle East. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has long been one of the most intractable diplomatic problems in the world, and by nudging the parties toward last year's historic White House agreement the US provided a dash of leadership at a crucial time.
But the administration fared less well on bread-and-butter US diplomatic subjects, according to the Princeton professor. Its contentious dealings with China earned a "C+", as did its trade struggle with Japan. Relations with Western Europe, driven almost to the crisis point by Bosnia and NATO-expansion struggles, received a "B-." Russia relations were judged a "C," drifting toward crisis after a promising beginning.
Clinton's Africa diplomacy rated an "F." "No Cold War = No policy," wrote Ullman.
Others rate Clinton's foreign policy, overall, somewhat lower. Willam Hyland, former editor of Foreign Affairs magazine and now a professor at Georgetown University, gave the White House a grade of "C" in his magazine scorecard. The administration's diplomacy started unevenly, according to Hyland, and has yet to fully recover.
"It's still a very ragged, uneventful and unfocused foreign policy. I think Bosnia is a second-rate issue," he says.
Relations with China and Japan are worsening at the same time, notes Mr. Hyland in Foreign Policy. That places the administration in a difficult position in East Asia, a part of the world where stability is vital to US security. NATO has been badly strained, though the alliance has yet to be irreparably hurt.
Relations with Russia and Ukraine have been "competantly" handled, according to Hyland, but Somalia is no better off for the US intervention there, renormalization of US relations with Vietnam was handled clumsily, and the administration has done little but talk about reform for such multilateral institutions as the UN.
On the positive side, Hyland also judges the Clinton team's efforts in the Middle East an "A." There have been "minor" successes, according to the Georgetown professor, in pushing the parties toward peace in Northern Ireland, encouraging Nelson Mandela in South Africa.
All this criticism does not mean that another president would necessarily have done much better. During the cold-war years, US presidents had a simple framework through which to view the world. In the vacuum left by the Soviet Union's collapse it has been difficult for the West to formulate a new overall strategy for dealing with global problems.
If the Bosnia peace agreement holds - still a very large "if" - the West will at least have created a precedent for dealing with the nasty regional disputes that promise to pepper the post-cold-war world.