• U.S.

America’s Flagging Mission

14 minute read
James Walsh

SO HERE IT IS: AN AMERICA BOUND for “change.” What Bill Clinton means by the word is one thing; what the world wonders is whether it can now expect attention doled out in small change. A novice at foreign affairs, Clinton often looks like a home-repair faddist with little time, or money, to spend on the town. That image is unfair. The President-elect from Arkansas by way of Oxford is a quick study in all subjects, and has gone out of his way to assure friendly governments that he will fit into Uncle Sam’s boots. The real issue bulks larger than Clinton: Now that the Soviet enemy is defunct, what kind of commanding role is America prepared to shoulder — no matter who inhabits the White House?

Had the choice been up to foreign leaders, George Bush would surely have retained that lease. The Commander-in-Chief who oversaw the end of the cold war, prosecuted Desert Storm and set Arab-Israeli peace talks in motion gets top marks on foreign policy from most of his counterparts overseas. Says Michael Dewar, the deputy director of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies: “If foreign policy were the main issue, Bush would win hands down — and rightly too.”

But then, political establishments almost invariably prefer a fellow incumbent to an unknown quantity. At times, Clinton’s proposed diplomatic initiatives — reconstruction aid to Russia, for example — made Bush seem flat-footed. At others, though, Clinton came across abroad as a naive son-of- Jimmy Carter, complete with Southern twang and somewhat preachy mission. To a world grown dizzy with change, the last thing it would seem to want is a mystery man at America’s helm of state.

With few exceptions, however, Clinton and Bush have differed hardly at all on foreign policy. The Democrat who regularly pilloried his opponent for all manner of domestic sins ended up time and again endorsing Bush’s courses of action abroad. Yet the degree to which the world really matters to Americans $ today can be gauged more truly by the attention it got on the campaign trail. In a television interview a week before Election Day, Bush lamented wistfully, “I haven’t heard anything on any of these public forums about foreign policy.” Thomas Friedman, chief diplomatic correspondent for the New York Times, said that during the candidate debates he “felt like the Maytag repairman,” the advertising character who famously has no work to do.

Europeans find that unsurprising. Europe, after all, is indulging in its own protracted bout of navel gazing now that moves toward a common defense and security policy have met with spectacular nonsuccess. Notes Andre Fontaine, chief editorialist and former editor of Le Monde: “A country that is deprived of enemies falls back on its internal problems.” He adds, “The United States won the cold war, but it paid too high a price for victory. It no longer has the money or the public backing to play a prominent role abroad.”

Wolfgang Biermann, a security adviser to the German Social Democrats, is not alone in seeing the wider trend of self-absorption as a “dangerous” sign. “If countries are refocusing only on their own issues and not recognizing their interdependence,” he judges, “there is a chance of things getting worse.” Or as Washington analyst Frank Gaffney puts it, “The fundamental laws of international politics have not been altered by the end of the cold war. You could say they’ve been exacerbated, because power, like nature, abhors a vacuum.” Bush celebrated the death of communism by proclaiming a new world order. He was right about the new world, but so far there is precious little order to it.

Clinton has not been just a yes-man to Republican-style realpolitik, and the few foreign policy changes he has advocated could still spell large consequences: a tougher line toward China, for instance, and more tender treatment of Israel in the Middle East negotiations. Among all foreigners, in fact, the Chinese and Arabs appear to be the most nervous at the prospect of a President Clinton, who has accused Bush of “coddling tyrants from Baghdad to Beijing.”

THOUGH HE HAS AGREED WITH the incumbent about the need to keep at least 100,000 U.S. troops in Europe, moreover, Clinton has been suspected of contemplating a revival of Carter’s plan to bring the boys home from South Korea. On Oct. 20, Seoul opposition leader Kim Dae Jung released a letter to him in which Clinton promised to preserve the level of U.S. troops in the $ country. Some Washington strategic-affairs experts remain uncertain, however. A sharp reduction of American forces in Korea would be sure to propel Asians, already jittery about possible transpacific trade reprisals, into desperate searches for new alliances and escalation of what is even now an intensifying regional arms race.

No doubt some of the President-elect’s differences with Bush have to be discounted as inflated campaign rhetoric. Israeli political scientist Yosef Goell, a columnist for the Jerusalem Post, regards the Democrat’s promised tilt back to Israel as “total nonsense” and “all a smokescreen” designed to woo America’s Jewish vote. On the whole, in fact, both major-party nominees saw eye to eye on the country’s global role. Says Robert Hunter of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies: “One good thing about this election is that the two candidates are internationalist. The isolationists were defeated.” John Reilly, president of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, agrees that public support for energetic U.S. engagement in the world remains, remarkably, “very strong.”

Strong in principle, anyway. Whether theory will continue to be translated into deed is another question. Foreign leaders who have talked to Clinton or his representatives have reason to believe most of his instincts are sound. Britain, America’s premier ally, hopes his Oxford background and age — at 46, Clinton is of the same generation as Prime Minister John Major, 49 — will reinforce the bond.

In any case, Clinton will find little freedom to disengage from the most strategic U.S. interests abroad — the Persian Gulf, for one. Thanks to America’s across-the-board failure to reduce the need for energy imports, the gulf now supplies half the crude oil the country uses and, if present trends continue, will furnish 70% of it by the year 2010. Clinton may have borne in mind more than aircraft-industry votes when he backed Bush’s pledge to sell an additional 72 F-15 fighter-bombers to Saudi Arabia. Should he be inclined to consider cutting back the U.S. military presence in Japan, Clinton would be at similar pains to justify the idea. By 1995, Tokyo will be paying nearly $4 billion a year to cover the expenses of American forces in the country, which will make it much cheaper to station them there than at home.

Even so, the absence of foreign policy from the presidential campaign made it clear that Americans have far more pressing concerns. Throughout the ( campaign, Clinton focused like a laser beam on domestic weaknesses: debt, deficit, social decay. David Aaron, who led a team of Clinton advisers on a recent tour of European capitals, reported that his boss’s top foreign policy would be rebuilding the U.S. economy. The man from Little Rock seems to have a tougher but perhaps smaller America in mind.

Many European officials are sympathetic to that view: caught themselves between the rock of recession and the hard place of international exigencies, some of Europe’s deftest politicians have been forced to choose along similar lines. In Dewar’s view, the biggest U.S. problem is psychological. He argues, “Like America, we all have our economic and social problems. But America is wallowing in pessimism. It needs to regain its self-confidence because that is the only way it will solve its problems and exert proper leadership.”

All the same, for now America’s sense of purpose in the world seems to be fading. Under Bush, the U.S. has already begun a retreat from key geopolitical fronts — even Europe. According to David Anderson, the head of the Aspen Institute Berlin and a former U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia, “We just don’t have an active European foreign policy.” Gaffney’s verdict: “The American role is likely to be less and less influential and less and less engaged. Therefore, it will be less and less useful.”

If so, the new world disorder seems bound to get worse before it gets better. NATO is a prominent case in point. Lacking a distinct role now that the Soviet threat is gone, the alliance soldiers on with the principal mission of saving Europeans from themselves. Henry Kissinger, former panjandrum of foreign affairs and America’s Eurocentrist par excellence, warned NATO officials recently that the partnership is in clear danger. “The Atlantic relationship, for a generation the linchpin of U.S. foreign policy, is eroding from neglect,” Kissinger declared. “Its institutions are being taken for granted even as the premises on which they were based are collapsing.” He added, “The European Community already shows every symptom of pursuing economic self-interest even at the risk of Atlantic cohesion.”

Indeed, the view from much of Europe is that America is slipping off the radar screen. This sense of a rudderless alliance, moreover, coincides with a tide of crises already crashing or brewing next door: the Yugoslav war, which many observers think will spread soon to Kosovo and Macedonia, and Boris Yeltsin’s deepening emergency in Russia. Bush at first left the Balkan conflagration in Europe’s hands; of late, Washington-led NATO has skirmished with the strictly European institutions on and off for the right to do nothing about the crisis. Overall, the Euro-American partnership seems so idle and inert that Anderson remarks, “I keep wondering why people talk about NATO anymore. For the life of me, I don’t know.”

As for Russia, Gaffney finds himself haunted by Washington’s “eerie silence” as Yeltsin slides toward possible overthrow at the hands of unreconstructed apparatchiks and ultranationalists. One of NATO’s residual missions is precisely to stand guard against any renascent threat from Russia or the other former Soviet republics, three of which still have nuclear weapons on their soil. Pointing to real or potential trouble spots on the eastern frontier, German Defense Minister Volker Ruhe said last month, “One cannot imagine that such a successful alliance will close its eyes and ears to what is happening.”

SO FAR, HOWEVER, IT HAS, GERmany included. Commenting on the October meeting of NATO Defense Ministers in Scotland, Herbert Kremp, foreign-affairs columnist for Die Welt, lamented that “nothing happens in Europe” because Germany, the logical power to pick up the U.S. slack, remains in the eyes of its political elite “a neuter yearning for the bliss of inferiority.” Said Kremp: “The international security system has collapsed insofar as it covers Europe. If the U.S. does not lead, no one does,” he added.

Clinton has talked about restoring a high moral vision to America’s global role, and one of the failures with which he has taxed Bush is Washington’s inadequate attention to the late world according to Marx. Yet Clinton also looks toward bankrolling much of his domestic program through deep cost cutting on defense. The promotion of disarmament, democracy and human rights abroad is not terribly persuasive if little money and muscle are behind it. As Dewar notes, moreover, “Clinton wants to retain the American presence abroad, but the question is, Will he be allowed to by the electorate and Congress?”

The President-in-waiting supports the plan worked out by Bush and former Secretary of State James Baker to keep U.S. troop levels in Europe, already down to half the 300,000-strong contingent of two years ago, to a minimum of 100,000 after 1995; excluding support personnel, that number will really amount to only 75,000 combat troops. “If he goes below 75,000,” Dewar says, “it will be dangerously low.” Even the French, who have been trying to ease America gently out of its commanding role, would blanch at the idea of insufficient U.S. force levels in Europe. As a senior French diplomat acknowledges, “We don’t want America to dominate Europe. But we want it to be a main partner in European security, which includes Germany’s stability, and its closest possible role in the alliance.”

To a fair extent, no doubt, much of what Clinton ultimately does in foreign policy will depend on whom he turns to for expertise. U.S. allies are not enraptured with the look of that inner circle to date. Clinton has gathered around him several former State Department officials from the Carter years, including Warren Christopher, who was Deputy and Acting Secretary of State then, and Anthony Lake, the department’s onetime chief of policy planning. Both men rose to distinction as ’70s Democrats espousing the philosophy that America is as much a part of the world’s problems as it is a solution. They have the image of being allergic to military activity and risk taking.

In that vein, analyst Hunter, a man regarded by some observers as close to Clinton’s advisers, suggests that a U.S. withdrawal from South Korea might be in the cards. “It would be foolish,” he says, “if the U.S. didn’t have fewer forces in Asia because there are fewer military threats.” Tell that to the South Koreans. North Korea is suspected of developing a nuclear-weapons capability — and as far as the rest of Asia goes, China’s arms buildup and growing blue-water navy are hardly tokens of assurance. Should the U.S. pull up stakes in South Korea, country after country, from Japan to Indonesia, might go into a disorienting spin in search of new security options. For historical reasons, the possibility of a more heavily rearmed Japan is alarming enough to most Asians. Noordin Sopiee, director-general of Malaysia’s Institute for the Study of International Strategy, says East Asians increasingly fear “that we must deal with our Chinas and Japans in a world where we cannot count on Americans.”

Not that Asians agree with Clinton’s threats to penalize China. As they see it, he risks making Beijing even more unpredictable with his proposal to hinge continuation of most-favored-nation trading status on a better human-rights record. Warns a senior British diplomat: “At this delicate phase in China, % especially with the old leadership dying out, it is imperative that relations be handled with caution. Bush has done that. Clinton says he will not. That could be dangerous for all of us.” A German diplomat says, “If Clinton tries to make the Chinese pariahs, it will only mean that American influence in Beijing will diminish.”

Chinese leaders are already bristling — and hedging their bets, having cemented diplomatic relations with Indonesia, Israel and South Korea, among other new initiatives. Though the People’s Republic has not reverted to throwing out the old “paper tiger” epithet, Huang Zhengji of the Beijing Institute of International Strategic Studies expressed much the same thing when he recently called the U.S. “fierce of mien but faint of heart.”

Still, the subjects of some authoritarian governments would welcome a healthy dose of human-rights diplomacy, however faint. Says Egyptian analyst Tahsin Bashir: “It would be beneficial if Arab rulers realized the U.S. is not going to be an automatic safety net for every corrupt and incompetent regime in the region.” Should Washington push too far, on the other hand, it might give militant Islamism, a movement distinctly untested in democratic virtues, entree to power. And a pronounced U.S. tilt back to Israel in the Middle East talks risks sending Syria and the Palestinians packing at a time when the 44-year-old quarrel is closer than ever to a semblance of comprehensive peace.

“Pressure” is in the eye of the observer, of course. Harry Wall, Israel director of the Anti-Defamation League, points out that all sides in the Middle East want — even require — American shepherding of the negotiations, but welcome only that pressure “applied to the other side.” Wall doubts that Clinton’s handling of the affair will differ significantly from the Bush-Baker team’s. Clinton, he is sure, will not want to go down in history as the President “who lost the Middle East peace process that had been handed to him.” Altogether, though, many change-weary allies and trading partners fear they have reason to worry about much less attention. The new world disorder, they suspect, will have to wait for Uncle Sam to get his boots back on.

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