Starting Over : For Better Foreign Policy: Talk to the Public

Charles A. Kupchan, senior fellow for Europe at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor at Georgetown University, was on the staff of the National Security Council for the first year of the Clinton Administration

The U.S. political system grants the presidency enormous power in foreign affairs. With this power comes the responsibility not only to guide the ship of state, but also to educate and inform the American people--a task the President, and only the President, can adequately carry out.

As the first U.S. leader of the post-Cold War era, Bill Clinton has to recast the foundations of U.S. foreign policy. Not since 1945 has a President had such weighty responsibility to mold public thinking about the nature of the nation's engagement abroad.

Clinton has thus far failed to fulfill this responsibility. As a result, he must now redouble efforts to exercise presidential leadership in foreign affairs. Regardless of the course of action he decides to pursue in Haiti, North Korea and whatever comes next, Clinton must embark on an explicit campaign to educate the American public about its responsibilities abroad. David R. Gergen's move from the White House to the State Department, to focus on foreign affairs, should help get the message across.

But if muddled signals--or only silence--continue to emanate from Washington, Americans will remain confused about their role in a world without a Soviet threat. The potential cost is high: the country's gradual disengagement from international affairs.

Since the beginning of the 20th Century--when the United States became a great power--Americans have tended to be ardent internationalists when foreign dangers arise, and ardent isolationists in the absence of pressing external threats. The country entered World War I to prevent German domination of Europe, only to withdraw from the international scene during the 1920s and 1930s. The United States paid a high price for its disengagement. Left unchecked, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan developed into powerful aggressor states. Their defeat cost thousands of American lives.

From the close of World War II until the end of the Cold War, the Soviet Union kept the United States engaged in Europe and Asia. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the scope of American involvement abroad is once again shrinking. If history is any guide, we are drifting toward a new isolationism.

This drift can be reversed--but only if Clinton persuades Americans that they should continue to expend blood and treasure to defend an international order no longer threatened by communism. Even if he decides the United States should engage only gingerly in pressing matters of the day, the President still must explain his decision to the public.

Clinton is clearly up to the task: He is articulate and charismatic when addressing the nation about domestic policy. He must now apply his talents elsewhere and overcome his decided reluctance to use the presidency to forge the political and conceptual underpinnings of a new foreign policy.

The costs associated with Clinton's unwillingness to play a more prominent role in shaping public attitudes are not yet fully apparent. The Congress and the people it represents remain internationalist; Americans still appreciate the importance of U.S. leadership and of continued U.S. engagement in world affairs. But this brand if internationalism is a residue of the Cold War. It will not last.

Unless Clinton increases the visibility of foreign policy and informs the American people of the principles that guide that policy, he will ensure that the next generation of Americans and the leaders they elect will be of a different cast. However politically attractive it may seem to allow foreign policy to slip off the radar screen, the country's long-term interests necessitate ambitious efforts to educate the public. When he chooses to act--and especially when he chooses not--Clinton must use prime-time television to explain to the American people the interests at stake. Saturday morning radio addresses will not do.

Paradoxically, the end of the Cold War has increased, not decreased, the need for presidential leadership in foreign affairs. From 1949-1989, successive U.S. Presidents had only to point to a pervasive Soviet threat to garner public support for enlarging the defense budget or sending troops far from U.S. borders. Now, Clinton must shape public attitudes with new arguments and clearly articulated actions. And because there is no global external threat, there is no neat formula or doctrine to guide policy. Like it or not, the President must get in the trenches and regularly explain to the nation the opportunities and dangers of a world undergoing deep transformation.

To be sure, Clinton's top priority should be the long-neglected domestic agenda. But the Administration must not underestimate the long-term effect of downgrading public discourse on foreign policy. Once isolationist myths take root, they are hard to dispel. Franklin D. Roosevelt battled tenacious strains of isolationism as he tried to prepare the country for World War II. Not until Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor could the American people be convinced of the need for engagement. By that time, Nazi Germany had already overrun most of Europe. To regain a foothold on the Continent, the Allies had no choice but to storm the beaches of Normandy.

In the late 1940s, Harry S. Truman faced similar obstacles in persuading Americans to bear the costs of containing the Soviet Union. Despite the Truman Administration's repeated efforts to dampen isolationism and fuel anti-communism, it took the outbreak of the Korean War to persuade Congress to undertake a major military buildup.

By taking steps now to sustain American internationalism, Clinton will ensure the United States plays its role in building a stable post-Cold War order. More important, he will be making a low-cost investment to ensure that Americans do not again drift into the illusory safety of isolationism.

The United States is at a critical historical juncture. Under Clinton's leadership, the country has embarked on an ambitious program of domestic renewal. Clinton's legacy already appears impressive: a more fair, competitive and prosperous country.

But Clinton is also presiding over the remaking of the country's foreign policy and is determining whether Americans turn inward or outward as they address domestic renewal. The rest of the world watches with anxiety; it is desperate for American leadership.

Unless Clinton makes foreign policy a more prominent element of his presidency, his legacy will be a prosperous country--but one withdrawn from the international arena. The last time that happened, the world went to hell. It is up to Clinton to ensure that, 50 years from now, Americans again descend on Normandy to commemorate, not to repeat, the rescue of the world from that hell.

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