President Clinton, in his first major statement of foreign policy principles, said Monday that despite America’s preoccupation with domestic economic affairs, it will remain actively engaged in the wider world.
But in virtually the same breath, Clinton sought to set limits for U.S. involvement in distant conflicts and humanitarian disasters, saying that American participation will be constrained by questions of cost, command and national interest.
“The United States intends to remain engaged and to lead,” the President said in his first address to the General Assembly. “We cannot solve every problem, but we must and will serve as a fulcrum for change and a pivot point for peace.”
But Clinton warned the delegates that the United States will not be drawn into costly and dangerous U.N. peacekeeping missions unless certain fundamental questions are answered before, not after, troops are committed. He asserted that the world body is unprepared to deal with modern conflicts, saying, “You cannot let the reach of the U.N. exceed its grasp.
“The United Nations simply cannot become engaged in every one of the world’s conflicts,” Clinton said. “If the American people are to say yes to U.N. peacekeeping, the United Nations must know when to say no.”
Although Clinton barely mentioned them in his 36-minute address, he clearly had in mind the troubled U.N. operation in Somalia and the prospect of as many as 50,000 troops--half of them Americans--being sent to enforce a peace agreement in the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
In a news conference later in the day, Clinton for the first time delineated the conditions that must be met before he would agree to deploy American forces to Bosnia.
He said the United States will not send troops unless the operation is led by an American, there is a political as well as a military strategy in place before it begins, there is a well-defined timetable for withdrawal and there is an equitable sharing of costs among all the nations involved.
He also said that Congress must explicitly endorse the mission, although he dodged the question of whether he would seek formal approval under the War Powers Act.
He indicated that several of those conditions had not been met in Somalia, where nearly 5,000 American troops are involved in trying to quell rising violence and build a functioning society.
“I think perhaps too little thought was given to the long-term need to develop some political alternative” in Somalia, the President said. “The political component of it--that is, how we end the humanitarian mission or at least turn over the political responsibility to the people of Somalia--has lagged a bit.”
Clinton’s overriding message, which he mentioned several times at the 21-minute news conference, was: “There are limits to how many things we can do.”
Aides said that Clinton was sending an unmistakable signal to world leaders that after the experience in Somalia, he will have difficulty persuading Congress and the American public to embark on an open-ended military mission in Bosnia without a compelling reason for being there and an identifiable strategy for getting out.
“The President was not seeking to erect unrealistic conditions, but we certainly want to answer the tough questions Congress and the American people expect us to answer” before committing U.S. troops to Bosnia, said a senior Administration official who briefed reporters after Clinton’s speech.
Clinton’s relative lack of engagement in foreign affairs was evident in the colorless tone of the U.N. speech, as contrasted with the passionate presentation of his health plan last week. The U.N. address ran 10 minutes less than its allotted time--unheard of for the windy President--and received a fairly unenthusiastic response in the General Assembly chamber.
Clinton was interrupted by applause twice--when he mentioned U.S. resolve to punish terrorists responsible for the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 and the World Trade Center bombing, and when he called for the creation of a U.N. high commissioner for human rights.
Although American guests of the President stood to applaud at the end of his speech, the delegates remained in their seats.
Clinton promised the assembly that the United States would pay within the next several weeks the $373 million in overdue peacekeeping assessments that it owes the United Nations. The United States also owes $460 million in back dues for regular U.N. operations, which will be paid over the next two years.
But, in another expression of the limits of U.S. involvement in international operations, Clinton said that the United States wants to cut the 30.4% share of peacekeeping costs it now pays to 25%.
Clinton also said the United Nations must embark on an effort to modernize its procedures and cut its expenses. He noted that Vice President Al Gore had developed a plan for streamlining the American government and said, “Now the time has come to reinvent the way the United Nations operates as well.”
Clinton proclaimed this period in history as a “moment of miracles” when white and black, Israeli and Palestinian, capitalist and former Communist can join hands.
Yet the post-Cold War world poses perils as well, the President said.
“Bloody ethnic, religious and civil wars rage from Angola to the Caucasus to Kashmir. As weapons of mass destruction fall into more hands, even small conflicts can threaten to take on murderous proportions.”
Economic strains are forcing nearly every nation to turn inward for reform and renewal, which Clinton said was long overdue in the United States and elsewhere. He warned, however, that a purely domestic focus poses its own dangers.
“Isolationism and protectionism are still poison,” Clinton said. “We must inspire our people to look beyond their immediate fears toward a broader horizon.”
Accordingly, Clinton said, the Administration had adopted a strategy aimed at “enlargement” of the circle of democratic and market-based nations. The United States would seek to spread the gospel of free elections and free markets throughout the developing world and the nations of the former East Bloc.
He also offered several new proposals aimed at stemming the spread of weapons of mass destruction, reminding the audience that the United States had vowed in July to halt testing of nuclear weapons if other nations abide by the moratorium as well.
He pointedly noted “disturbing signs” that China was about to test a nuclear weapon, but he did not say what the United States would do in response.
An aide said afterward that a new Chinese weapons test would cause the United States to consider a resumption of its own nuclear testing.
Clinton also proposed a worldwide ban on the production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons and said he would seek to strengthen international conventions on biological and chemical weapons. He also will try to broaden the Missile Technology Control Regime to include more nations and more classes of ballistic missiles.
He offered for the first time to allow international inspection of some of the American stockpile of plutonium and uranium and called on other nuclear weapons states to open their programs to monitoring as well.
However, he did not propose any new restrictions on transfers of conventional weaponry, which provide lucrative markets for American, Russian and Western European arms makers.
Clinton’s seeming reluctance concerning U.N. peacekeeping operations caused dismay among diplomats concerned about enforcing a Bosnia peace agreement.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said that a force to police a Bosnia peace will fail without U.S. participation.
“It will not work if the American troops do not come in,” Juppe told a group of reporters over breakfast just hours before Clinton’s speech. If a peace agreement is signed, he said, it cannot be expected to work without “a substantial force on the ground.”
Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) said the President’s speech failed to draw an important distinction between U.S. interests and those of the United Nations.
“The key to making the world safe for democracies, and not for dictators, is not to ‘reinvent’ the United Nations but to assert U.S. leadership in support of U.S. interests,” he said.
Clinton’s perfunctory remarks about peacekeeping did little to ease the concern among U.N. officials about the brewing controversy in Washington over the American role in Somalia and Bosnia.
Some of the troubled U.N. mood was reflected by Joe Sills, chief U.N. spokesman, who told a news briefing that Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali had long argued that the United Nations must limit its peacekeeping operations, although “the secretary general hasn’t said it so abruptly” as Clinton, Sills said.
Alluding to Clinton’s admonition that the United Nations “must know when to say no” to peacekeeping requests, Sills reminded reporters that “it’s the Security Council that must say no.” All peacekeeping operations are authorized by the Security Council. The United States, with its veto, has the power to prevent the Security Council from setting up any U.N. military venture.
At a luncheon for 24 heads of state and government, including Clinton, Boutros-Ghali delivered a passionate defense of the United Nations’ actions in a difficult era. “It must be understood that there will be failures as well as successes,” he said. “The United Nations is not a magic wand. . . .
“The problems before us cannot be solved quickly,” he went on. “Staying power is crucial. If the forces of chaos and corruption conclude that the United Nations is short of breath, they will prevail simply by waiting for the world to turn its attention elsewhere.”
Clinton’s speech drew only subdued enthusiasm from some supporters of the United Nations. Edward Luck, president of the U.N. Assn. of the United States, likened the speech to “a composition that had melody to it but didn’t have any high notes with specifics.”
“Clearly, it’s a beginning,” said Luck, adding that he expects that the Clinton Administration will outline more detailed statements of its foreign policy in the future.
Times staff writers Norman Kempster and Stanley Meisler contributed to this report.
Clinton at the U.N.
In his U.N. speech and related news conference, President Clinton:
* Told the United Nations that the American people will support sending U.S. troops to keep peace around the world only if new missions are sharply limited.
* Proposed a network of nuclear arms restraints, including a worldwide ban on the production of weapons-grade uranium.
* Listed terms for sending American forces to enforce a peace agreement in Bosnia, including an American commander for the operation and a well-defined timetable for withdrawal.
* Said the United States may have underestimated the difficulty of restoring political stability in Somalia.
* “The United Nations simply cannot become engaged in every one of the world’s conflicts. If the American people are to say yes to U.N. peacekeeping, the United Nations must know when to say no.”
* “I think perhaps too little thought was given to the long-term need to develop some political alternative” in Somalia.