AWOL Abroad: Clinton's Foreign Policy

PRESIDENT Clinton's foreign policy will not produce what it promises. In fact, it is likely to produce the reverse. Instead of promoting international stability and cooperation, it will unintentionally generate more crises and further divide the Western alliance. Instead of defending American national interests, it will unwittingly make their promotion more difficult. Instead of allowing for cuts in the defense budget to power domestic renewal, Mr. Clinton's approach thus far will finally force the Unite d States to spend more on defense than ever before.

White House foreign policy is still being formed, and signals from senior officials have been in conflict. Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff suggests the US should assume a diminished role; other White House aids deny that is the official line. On July 5, the president makes his first major foreign policy address. To the extent he does not distance himself from Mr. Tarnoff's ideas, he will continue to pursue a foreign policy rooted in three problematic convictions. Each of these has certain attractio ns, but also certain dangers:

First, an uncritical faith in the virtues of multilateralism. This faith raises serious questions about what defines our national interest. More seriously, it gives other countries the right to veto our own promotion of our national interests.

Second, a profound belief that the end of the cold war releases the United States from its obligation to provide international leadership. This reinforces isolationist impulses at home and prompts independent action by friend and foe alike.

Third, an ingrained opposition to use of military power if such use entails significant casualties. This view is taken regardless of the issues at stake or the broader consequences of not using force. Such an approach undercuts our diplomacy and will encourage opponents to test us.

Because these three beliefs have such enormous implications, they deserve more attention than they have received so far.

The end of the cold war is an appropriate time to redefine our national interests. The world has changed profoundly. The US may be the only superpower, but change increasingly undermines the alliance structures that were built in a world that no longer exists. During the cold war, we defined our national interests almost exclusively in negative terms. We said what we were against, rather than what we were for. We defined the defense of our interests primarily in terms of military power. Now, we must defi ne our interests more positively and broadly to include economic, political, and moral dimensions - and recast our means of promoting them.

President Clinton's desire for multilateralism flows from a noble impulse. But it truncates and trivializes a needed debate over what our interests now are and how to defend them. His approach implies that the United Nations and other multilateral bodies provide ready-made and higher standards to which we must submit. Witness his unfortunate remarks about backing down in Bosnia because of opposition in the Security Council. Such an approach gives other countries a veto over our actions.

Most seriously, Clinton's faith in multilateralism brings uncertainty among traditional friends about our willingness to act. It unwittingly encourages them to act independently and even oppose us. Ironically, multilateralism will cause others to act more unilaterally. It may lead real and potential foes to conclude our actions abroad will increasingly be at a lowest-common-denominator level of international agreement.

This is not to say we should always go it alone, or that the UN is not on occasion a useful tool. But we should make sure it does not become an excuse for non-action or a trap where our interests get lost.

Clinton's faith in multilateralism both reflects and reinforces his second conviction - that the end of the cold war reduces our responsibilities in the world and that we can now turn inward. Historically, the US has alternated between periods of isolationism and periods of intense intervention in the world. With the end of the cold war, neither position is adequate; we are too intertwined with the world to withdraw, and there are too many other powers for us to act as the world's policeman. (So far, we have been acting more like a fireman responding to disasters than a policeman trying to prevent them.) We must, then, learn to balance interests and resources, defining what is most important to us and using our enormous strength to pursue it.

Yet instead, the White House has worsened the situation - not out of evil intentions but out of a failure to set priorities and bring rhetoric in line with reality. This is a serious failure in a superpower. Too often the White House has promised more than it could deliver - raising, then dashing expectations, and undermining the perception and reality of US power abroad.

A basic shift is taking place in the way decisions are made about American interests and how to generate public support for foreign commitments. Given our isolationist tendency and the nature of our democratic system, any president faces enormous challenges in generating support in the absence of a direct attack on the US. But where earlier presidents urged Americans to broaden their scope, Clinton seems to have accepted status quo. This ``democratic'' approach slows our response to crises until they gro w too big.

Clinton's third conviction, opposition to the use of force, may be the most harmful. Announcing an unwillingness to use force leaves diplomacy toothless. During the cold war the US military could be rightly counted on to say why force should not be used. But a political leadership that simply accepts this view weakens its hand. This seems to have happened to the White House. Both our allies and opponents are recalculating their strategies.

We may soon find ourselves forced to fight stronger opponents in less favorable circumstances. It is often objected that Serb President Milosevic and his ilk are not Hitler and that opposing him doesn't tell Moscow that we oppose a Russian thrust at, say, the Baltic states. But failure to oppose ``ethnic cleansing'' in the former Yugoslavia has already influenced other governments that are more aggressive and less amenable to US influence.

The last time these three beliefs shaped the foreign policy of a great power was in pre-World War II Britain. If you did not like the results of that policy, you won't like the probable remake now. Fortunately, there is time to change direction; unfortunately, there may be less time than we may think.

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