Not So Foreign Policy

Despite conventional wisdom that says we are a nation preoccupied with "minding the store" at home, we are in fact enthusiastic, albeit unwitting, internationalists.

For many Americans, the walls that came down with the cold war's end didn't include the walls in the mind that separate the "foreign" from the "domestic." But in today's complex world, there simply isn't any longer an easy division of the two. The globalized economy, the information and communications revolution, innovations in transportation, and other factors have blurred blocs and borders and driven more issues that hit close to home into the lexicon of foreign policy.

In a global economy, foreign policy creates jobs. The 200-plus international trade agreements reached by the Clinton administration have yielded nearly 2 million new US jobs. More than one-third of our economic growth today derives from exports. Our ability to sustain that growth depends, in part, on our willingness to use foreign policy to promote exports, protect our products, and ensure open trade. That willingness is now being tested in Congress, as it weighs President Clinton's bid for "fast track" trade negotiating authority. The president can and should use this opportunity to establish with the broader public the fact that foreign policy has made our nation richer and can continue to do so.

A world with diminishing borders also creates challenges for Americans. Open borders and advances in transportation have facilitated the onset of mulitnational cartels that deal illegal drugs and weapons in our neighborhoods. Advanced technology now allows criminals to steal from, spy on, and sabtotage American citizens and companies from afar. American diplomacy is today at the front line in the battle against these threats to our interests and values - a special State Department bureau deals exclusively with such "transnational" issues.

Many other "close to home" issues have international implications. Environmental degradation respects national boundaries no more than the wind or tide does. US foreign policy, through instruments such as the UN, helps meet the challenges of pollution andpopulation.

When the collapse of the Mexican peso threatened the sanctity of our borders - and our economy - we averted the crisis at home by lending a hand to buttress reform of the Mexican economy. And our ability to prevent and punish those who would commit acts of terrorism against Americans also requires sustained diplomacy to gather, share, and analyze information as well as to capture and extradite suspects.

It would seem that foreign policy isn't so "foreign" anymore. Indeed, our interests in the world today are more than geopolitical abstractions; they are real. Ironically, so long as this fact is lost among the broader public, the ability of the US to conduct effective foreign policy is undermined. Ours is an era in which public opinion increasingly drives policy decisions. Reflecting our sour attitude toward international affairs, relative to the average of the 1980s, US government spending on foreign policy has fallen by nearly 20 percent in real terms. It could fall further still.

But insofar as job creation, the fight against drugs, crime, terrorism, and protecting the environment (not to mention traditional, "hard" issues like security) reflect our values and interests, we should stop carping about how much we hate foreign affairs, and ante up the resources needed to bolster our official and public diplomacy efforts.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had it right when she said, "We are talking about 1 percent of the federal budget; but that 1 percent may determine 50 percent of the history that is written about our era; and it will affect the lives of 100 percent of the American people."

If we only knew it.

* Michael Holtzman is director of public affairs at the Council on Foreign Relations. These views are his own.

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