Foreign Policy: Republicans vs. Democrats?

Controversy between the two parties looms, but Congress has a unique opportunity to shape a more effective plan

FOREIGN policy will likely continue to be a point of contention between the new Republican Congress and the Clinton administration.

In the past month, various Republican leaders on Capitol Hill have advocated lifting the arms embargo on Bosnia, withdrawing United Nations peacekeeping forces, arming and training the Bosnians, and bombing the Serbs. They also have promoted shifting foreign aid from Africa to former republics of the Soviet Union, using foreign aid (or the threat of withholding it) to collect debts owed to American citizens in Central America, hastening economic reform in Russia, and encouraging the expansion of NATO in Eastern Europe.

These proposals have three common characteristics. First, they will relieve frustration. Second, they are unlikely to do anything else that is positive. Third, they deal with important issues but at the same time avoid more profound questions, such as whether NATO or a foreign aid program should even exist. They will allow Republicans to talk to a domestic audience, simplifying a complicated matter.

This will give Republicans the luxury of not having to make foreign policy work. They will not have to take into account the fact that effective diplomacy requires recognition of the other party's point of view, motives, and objectives. The Democratic administration, meanwhile, will be left to deal with intransigent foreigners.

At the same time, Republicans have been willing to deal with foreigners directly. Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, the new majority leader, went to Brussels to discuss Bosnia with the NATO Council. A Republican member of the the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has already been to Europe propagating a new foreign-policy doctrine to ``encircle Russia with democracy and free markets.''

Foreigners must be wondering whether they should deal with the Senate or the State Department.

Democrats, meanwhile, will likely wrap themselves in the mantle of bipartisanship. Presidents typically do not like infringements on what they perceive to be their prerogative to make foreign policy.

There is no reason to suppose that Bill Clinton will be different from his predecessors. In talking about foreign-policy bipartisanship, presidents usually mean they should get to do it their way.

If this is how the looming controversy over foreign policy plays out, the country will be ill-served. There is another way. The Republicans have a splendid opportunity to contribute to the public development of a more effective foreign policy. The last time Republicans controlled both houses of Congress while a Democrat was in the White House was 1947-48. That was part of an era notable for a burst of creativity in foreign policy, including the creation of the United Nations, the Marshall Plan, and NATO.

That period has been romanticized as the golden age of bipartisanship. There was indeed cooperation, but also robust debate and sometimes sharp partisan division, especially over China, Korea, and the commitment of American ground troops to the defense of Europe.

The present period in many respects resembles the late 1940s. World politics is extraordinarily fluid and in a state of transition now as it was then. We do not now have anything to replace the policy of containment that provided the framework within which we conducted and eventually won the cold war. What we have instead are bits and pieces of policies - democracy, human rights, sustainable development, among others. We need to think harder about how, or whether, these pieces fit into a coherent whole.

Korea is again at the forefront of our concerns. A good topic to open the wider debate is the nuclear agreement whereby North Korea agrees to abandon its plutonium processing program and the United States agrees to aid for conventional nuclear power plants. This agreement exemplifies the difficult trade-offs that have to be made in foreign policy. The White House will argue that it deserves support in the name of bipartisanship. Maybe it does, but not for that reason. A vigorous debate in Congress would elucidate the pros and cons. It could solidify support or point to a better alternative.

Either way, the country would be better off. This is one reason we have a Congress. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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