The making of a senior statesman

Still domestic at heart, Clinton has grown as a world leader. But at start of key trip abroad, critics see flaws too.

Back when Bill Clinton was president-elect and hadn't yet fully grasped what it means to be leader of the free world, he visited Lee Hamilton on Capitol Hill.

Mr. Hamilton, the Democrat then in charge of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told the young ex-governor that foreign policy would be central to his presidency. But, as Hamilton now tells it, Mr. Clinton didn't seem to agree. "He came into office thinking he could delegate foreign policy - and he learned that he could not," he says.

That is a big - and basic - lesson in the life of a president, especially one who staked his 1992 campaign on the domestic economy. But it is not the only one that Clinton has learned about foreign affairs in his nearly eight years in office.

Now the senior statesman on the world stage - both because of longevity and sheer breadth of experience - Clinton has come a long way in his understanding of the complexities of world affairs, in supporting globalization, and in building relationships.

But many analysts still fault him for being too crisis-driven and not having an overarching principle to guide the US in the post-cold-war era.

Last week's crucial House vote on China was telling on Clinton's evolution as a global affairs manager. On a tactical level, the president did not repeat mistakes, such as leaving lobbying to the last minute or largely in the hands of aides - missteps that contributed to earlier defeats on trade and arms control. Instead, he made this vote a priority.

On a policy level, the development was even more striking. In 1993, Clinton felt China needed to be contained. By 2000, he had come full circle to argue it should be engaged. "He has grown, of course he has. He is now the senior and most respected world leader," says National Security Council spokesman P.J. Crowley.

That will be acknowledged in Europe this week as the president receives the Charlemagne Prize - not exactly a Nobel, but a prestigious award given to leaders who have made a major contribution to European unity and world peace. Previous winners include Winston Churchill and Vaclav Havel. Clinton is only the third American (after Henry Kissinger and George Marshall) to receive it.

The ceremony on Friday comes midway in a tour that includes a summit with European Union leaders and a key meeting in Moscow with Russia's new president, Vladimir Putin.

In evaluating Clinton's growth, foreign policy experts give him credit for:

*Building personal relationships. Over time, Clinton has developed close ties to world leaders, much as he has done with politicians at home. "He gets them to like him, builds a bond, and then persuades them," says former Chief of Staff Leon Panetta.

This proved effective last year, when the president held together a shaky NATO coalition as it bombed Yugoslavia. It's a skill he's applied to peacemaking in Northern Ireland and the Mideast - though with mixed results.

*Spending more time on the road. Typical of past presidents, Clinton has devoted more attention to world affairs in his second term than in his first. By week's end, he will have made more than 100 visits to foreign countries - making him the most widely travelled president.

*Gaining confidence. While the president started out relying on the advice of his team, he now knows almost as much about Africa, for example, as about the intricacies of Medicare. This self-assurance has made Clinton more willing to use military might.

"What has changed is his confidence about the use of force," says Tony Lake, Clinton's first national security adviser.

Mr. Lake says the president also enjoys foreign policy more, especially building a world connected by free trade and technology. "The world intrudes, whether you like it or not. He did not like it when it came, but he did it. And as he got the Bosnias and Haitis under control, his enjoyment of it increased."

But most analysts would characterize these lessons as basics. The Clinton administration, they say, is still too reactive. There's still no overarching policy dictating when the US should use force and when it shouldn't. While the president took a stab at that last year, saying the military should intervene to prevent genocide when it could, he never did develop this so-called "Clinton doctrine."

In the one area where he's shown the most consistency - free trade and globalization - experts fault him for missed opportunities due to lack of focus and follow-through. NAFTA, for instance, could have been enlarged to include Chile. APEC, the group of Asian and American nations that Clinton has prodded toward free trade, has made only minimal progress. And last year's Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization embarrassed the administration.

"There's no evidence whatsoever he's changed the thinking in his own party about open trade ... and he hasn't changed American thinking about globalization," says Richard Haass, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution here.

While the president has improved in his foreign policy tactics, "I don't see much evolution in terms of strategic or conceptual vision or strength," says a former State Department official.

Analysts are surprised, for example, that the administration wasn't more aware that building a limited national missile-defense system could set off a nuclear-arms buildup in China. But in the president's defense, others point out he's had to navigate in a post-cold-war era that's uncertain and changing quickly. Further, he has been stymied by an opposition Congress.

While Clinton may still be a domestic president at heart, he "covered the bases," says Mr. Panetta. "He's had the greatest achievement that any president seeks - which is world peace."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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