The World Stage Awaits Clinton's Second Term
Does a president change in his second term, when he contemplates not the next election, but the judgment of history?Skip to next paragraph
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President Clinton may well be tempted to follow the examples of previous second-termers - Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan - all of whom, in greater or lesser degree, turned their attention increasingly to foreign affairs. For Truman, succeeding to the presidency in the climactic days of World War II, involvement with the world was more a necessity than a preference. In his inaugural address he spoke of a period "perhaps decisive for us and the world." Before him lay the postwar East-West arrangements in Europe and the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan.
Soon he would be involved with the onset of the cold war, the Marshall Plan, and the stern decision to send American forces to stand up to the invasion of South Korea. Nothing in his background had prepared him for world leadership. But, as David McCullough wrote in his biography, "The responsibilities he bore were like those of no other president before him, and he more than met that test."
President Eisenhower needed no introduction to international affairs, yet he became more occupied with the outside world in his second term than the first. He began an extensive series of foreign trips. I covered his tours of South America in 1959 and Asia in 1960. It seemed to me, as I toured the Taj Mahal in India with him and saw him face hostile demonstrators in Montevideo, Uruguay, that he wanted, most of all, his page in history to say "peace." So strong was that impulse that, even after the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary, he devoted himself to getting coexistence with the Soviet Union back on track. His steadfast efforts culminated in the invitation to Nikita Khrushchev to tour the United States in 1959.
President Nixon, who loved striding on a global stage, was already deeply involved in foreign affairs in his first term, climaxed by the breakthrough to Communist China. As Watergate clouded his second term, he turned increasingly to foreign problems. Vietnam, of course, stood at the forefront of these problems. It was clearly his hope to salvage something of the figure of world statesman from the coming wreckage of Watergate. In May 1974, only weeks before his resignation, he flew to Moscow for a summit session with Leonid Brezhnev in Yalta.
President Reagan, in his second term, did a 180-degree turn on relations with the Soviet Union. From excoriation of "the evil empire," he turned to summitry and the search for arms control agreements with Mikhail Gorbachev.
So, now, a second-term President Clinton who started his first term by saying he would "focus like a laser beam" on domestic problems. Clearly, a plague of congressional ethics investigations will give him, like Nixon, incentive to travel abroad. (An early trip to China is being discussed.) Yet that would not be the sole motivation for plunging into foreign affairs. During the campaign the president did not talk much of international matters. But in a speech in Oakland, Calif. he went off on a rumination that started this way, "When I get up and go to work and try to keep people from killing each other in Bosnia, or trying to resolve the problems of the Middle East, or trying to resolve the problems in Northern Ireland, when I sent our troops to Rwanda with the French to stop the starvation of hundreds of thousands of people ...." Later, he added, "If we do right, it [the next four years] will be the most remarkable experience in democracy ever, ever."
Mr. Clinton will not want for foreign problems to immerse himself in. A humanitarian calamity beckons in Rwanda and Zaire. Bosnia threatens to come apart again if NATO troops, including American, are withdrawn. Palestinian-Israeli peace holds on by a thin thread.
It's a long way from slick politician to wise world statesman. That is the journey that now awaits Clinton.
Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.