As Clinton exits, 'third way' faces setback

A global power shift may be under way, as center-left coalition of leaders loses its star.

With President Clinton's tenure at the White House coming to an end, a major power shift is under way in the United States.

The same can be said for the international community, which on Jan. 20 will lose its senior statesman and unofficial leader of the "third way" movement.

During the latter years of his two-term presidency, Mr. Clinton has tried to cultivate a group of world leaders who are bound by the common center-left leanings of their respective political parties. The group includes, among others, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, Italian Prime Minister Massimo d'Alema, and President Fernando Enrique Cardoso of Brazil.

Now, with Clinton being replaced by Republican President-elect George W. Bush, that group will face a major setback - if not an end. The US, the world's only superpower, will no longer be a part of the club, at least not on a political level.

The third way was "very much a personal idea of the Clinton administration," says one European diplomat. "I don't see how it could go on under the new administration."

The breakup of the exclusive leaders' group does not exactly have the makings of a global crisis. But it could shut down a valuable conduit of dialogue between the US and Europe - something that in the past has been useful for long-term strategy in dealing with worldwide issues.

One of the goals of the third way has been to expand trade and globalization while not leaving behind the disadvantaged. Another is to create international mechanisms that can prevent regional economic crises from spreading around the globe.

"For us, it's a very serious attempt to put a human face on the global economy and to direct the process of globalization in a way that benefits all people," Clinton said in a speech last month.

Roots of the movement

The third way rose in the early 1990s on the shoulders of political parties that tried to strike a balance between left and right, or in the case of the US, between Democrat and Republican.

In America, the idea was championed by the Democratic Leadership Council, which was headed by Clinton and helped launch his successful run at the presidency. Clinton and the New Democrats tried to bolster the economy through private-sector economic growth rather than the public-jobs programs that were associated with Jimmy Carter.

After Clinton rose to power, other like-minded leaders followed suit, including Mr. Blair and Mr. Schroeder. They replaced dominant conservative leaders like Ronald Reagan and George Bush, Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain, and Helmut Kohl of Germany.

The group started getting together in 1997 and had its first formal meeting, with six members, in June 1999. When they met in Berlin last summer, there were 14 attendees (minus Blair, who didn't go because he was home with his newborn baby, and Israel's Ehud Barak, who was tied up with domestic issues).

Ironically, the assembly of like-minded world leaders has been somewhat reminiscent of the cold-war-era Comintern - although it has had a dramatically different agenda, including environmental issues, new technologies, and fighting disease.

A future with Bush?

One of the third way's organizers, Al From, the current president of the Democratic Leadership Council, suggests that the group will go on after the formal departure of Clinton, who is likely to play a role even after he has left the White House. He points out that the rest of the club is still intact - most recently Canada's center-left party, the Liberals, won a third straight election, and the US Democrats could make a comeback in 2004.

And, says Mr. From, there remains a possibility that the third way could hold meetings with Mr. Bush, although "if the leaders get together, they won't talk about progressive governance the same way with Bush."

One European diplomat lamented what he considered the imminent breakup of the "group of like-minded and very important people," saying his country's leadership would miss the easy and informal mode of dialogue.

But another diplomat, whose leader was also part of the club, said that his country was working fast to establish similar ties with President-elect Bush, who campaigned as a centrist "compassionate conservative."

"The third way is about letting the markets develop in a sensitive way," the diplomat says. "That's not too far off from compassionate conservatism."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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