The Clinton Doctrine: a New Foreign Policy

The White House Bosnia retreat shows a new approach to the US world role - balancing US power and commitment. The new doctrine is a mixed blessing.

AS administration officials reveal their decision not to intervene in Bosnia, a new foreign policy strategy of limited engagement has emerged - the "Clinton Doctrine."

Peter Tarnoff, undersecretary of state for political affairs, spelled out the grand strategy to reporters off-the-record on May 25. The approach is based on the idea that "our economic interests are paramount." The US must "define the extent of its commitment and make a commitment commensurate with those realities. This may on occasion fall short of what some Americans would like and others would hope for." Hence the White House decision not to intervene in Bosnia foreshadows some disengagement: "We simp ly don't have the leverage, we don't have the influence ... to bring to bear the kind of pressure that will produce positive results...."

Mr. Tarnoff conceded that such an approach will be "difficult" for allies to understand but that a new division of labor must be initiated: "We're talking about new rules of engagement for the United States. There will have to be genuine power-sharing and responsibility sharing."

Only threats against the continental US and those that can be dealt with effectively will be worth countering: "There may be occasions in the future where the United States acts unilaterally - if we perceive an imminent danger very close to home...."

Tarnoff admitted these limitations would undercut the ability of the US to champion human rights and democracy. On the question, "Are people dying because the United States could do a lot more if we wanted to?" he said yes. He then made the case for a lesser US role: "I am perfectly able to withstand criticism that we are abdicating power on this issue because I believe, and more importantly the President and the Secretary believe, that for more major international issues of this sort, where other region al players have a great stake, we should make very clear that we will play a role, we will have a leadership role, but we are not going to be so far out in front as to allow them to defer to the United States when it comes to making the very hard decisions on the commitment of men and women and resources."

Tarnoff's comments reflected President Clinton's campaign dictum that a successful foreign policy has to be based on a healthy economy. But the White House and Secretary of State Warren Christopher quickly downplayed Tarnoff's remarks. Mr. Christopher tried to counter the impression of a scaled-back US role by demanding more international engagement. He used the words "leadership" and "lead" 23 times in a speech in Minneapolis two days later. But this seemed more like damage control than a firm denial.

Actually, Christopher hinted of a new Clinton Doctrine on "Nightline" after Tarnoff gave his speech: "No, I think we're undertaking the role of the world's most prominent power. If we were really threatened by something, if our national interests were at stake ... of course we'd act alone.... A hierarchy of interests are involved ... in this kind of situation [Bosnia], a humanitarian crisis a long way from home, in the middle of another continent, I think our actions here are proportionate to what our re sponsibilities are ... in this post-cold-war period. We can't do it all; we have to measure our ability to act in the interests of the United States.... "

The similarity between the two men's remarks is striking. What Christopher himself enunciated as the Clinton Doctrine on the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour June 1 is an attempt to bring - in Walter Lippmann's words - commitments and power into balance. Its most remarkable feature is that it reduces the US role as sole arbiter of international stability to "normal" great-power status. The retreat from global preeminence will include the US's disengagement from economic and political spheres of interest and from its universal commitments to human rights and democracy. Current international commitments have to be diminished to realistic levels, so that they are not exposed as bluffs tomorrow. This policy is based on the assumption that the US no longer can afford to meet world-wide commitments - in terms of costs and risks - due to economic woes. Dealing with challenges posed by "middle weight" powers may overextend the country. Acknowledging the emergence of a multipolar world, the Clinton Doctrine concedes that th e US has lost superpower status. In the future, international stability can only be maintained through cooperation. So unilateral US involvement will occur only where vital US interests, not those of allies, are at stake.

WHILE the US still has the world's most powerful military establishment, it has lost its economic and diplomatic leverage due to the desolate state of its economy and political culture. The US is ill-prepared to deal with a post-containment world. The realignment of national interests between emerging great powers - Japan, the European Community under German leadership, China, Russia, and the US - takes place on the economic and technological playing fields, not the military one. Therefore, America's pre dominately military means of influence is less important.

The merit of the doctrine is that it offers new realism. Modest US goals are matched with modest means. The national interest is defined in economic terms to allow a revival of the economy. To establish a "hierarchy of interests" shows that the administration understands that realignments of national interests will lead to new configurations of power and the dissolution of old alliances. The "nationalization" of America's economic interests has already ended attempts at establishing a liberal economic wo rld order. Hence, the Clinton Doctrine's imperative is to design an active, economic foreign policy that makes inroads into foreign markets and shields the US economy from the negative effects of free trade with competitive nations such as Japan. The approach deserves credit for terminating Mr. Clinton's idealist notions of stopping ethnic cleansing in Bosnia as being in the national interest. Only areas where the national interest is truly ascertained - for example, democratic reform in Russia - will be su pported. Overall, the Clinton Doctrine provides the strategic ordering principle for Clinton's three "overarching" foreign policy goals: revitalization of the economy, modernization of security arrangements, and promotion of democracy and human rights.

Implementing this doctrine may not be without problems. The administration may succumb to obsessive multilateralism. If the diminished role of the US would lead the administration to hand over every crisis to an international organization, this would jeopardize a US great-power role. But multilateralism should not be confused with seeking consensus and cooperation among great powers to further one's own national interest. To his credit, Christopher says only a "flexible diplomacy that uses the full range

of bilateral, regional, and multilateral tools" can succeed. Christopher has promised leadership of the world's "most prominent power" with the caveat that not every crisis should become a choice between inaction and American intervention. If his foreign policy is informed by the principle "cooperation where possible, unilateral action where required," the administration will avoid the quicksand of multilateralism. Under this doctrine, intervention in Bosnia would be futile. But intervention against Iraq's

take-over of Kuwait was a necessity.

A related danger is that Christopher will assume all conflicts can be resolved by compromise. Too many bargaining strategies may cause the US to forget that some interests can only be preserved without compromise or by use of force. It was Governor Clinton who said "power is the basis for successful diplomacy, and military power has always been fundamental in international relationships."

The price of the Clinton Doctrine could be more Bosnias. The world might become more insecure; this is tolerable only as long as it does not conflict with vital US interests. The Clinton Doctrine is a bold and needed attempt to face America's diminished role in a world with many challenges. Now the administration must implement it. This will not be easy. Diplomacy must substitute for the loss of economic and military might. America's allies needn't feel abandoned if they assume more responsibility. Only in this way can America lead. The doctrine should not be misunderstood as the precursor of a new isolationism. It should be seen as protecting the US from over-commitment.

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