Clinton Struggling to Shape Foreign Policy and America's Place in World

President Clinton had good reason last week to call attention to his foreign policy successes. For a change, everything seemed to be going right, and Clinton deserves his share of the credit.

Unfortunately, in the midst of it all, the President tried to seize the opportunity to portray himself as some sort of visionary, a man with far-reaching ideas about the world and America's role in it. It didn't work.

Last Wednesday, the White House summoned a few columnists to interview Clinton about foreign policy. The timing was not accidental. Only the day before, the United States had worked out the beginnings of a peace settlement in Bosnia--an accomplishment that was the direct result of the Clinton Administration's decision last summer to seize the diplomatic initiative there.

The day after the interview, Arab and Israeli leaders were to fly to the White House for the signing of an agreement that extends Palestinian rule to the West Bank, marking the next stage of the Middle East peace process. That's an achievement too. The Administration may be exaggerating its role in bringing about this settlement, but the United States does, after all, play the role of sponsor, instigator, intermediary and host.

For Clinton, the juxtaposition of these two events provided a chance to show that his foreign policy management is not as inept as the Republicans regularly charge, and an occasion to demonstrate that, after early flip-flops on Bosnia, Haiti and China and the debacle in Somalia, his record is improving.

Over the next year, the country is probably going to see a lot more Rose Garden-style foreign policy. With the Republicans dominating Capitol Hill and crippling Clinton's domestic initiatives, foreign policy is the one area where the President still has broad authority to act on his own.

Moreover, while other presidential candidates--Republican, independent or Perotist--are dueling with one another, Clinton can seem to be above the fray by keeping his attention on foreign policy.

Sitting in the Oval Office last week, the President was relatively sober and modest in his appraisal of the recent successes. Calling the Bosnian settlement "an important step," he acknowledged that a lot can still go wrong. He said the same about the Middle East agreement.

It was when he moved beyond the week's events that Clinton became airy and grandiose--sounding a bit like Jerry Brown might have if he had become President.

"The more I stay here and the more time I spend on foreign policy and the more I learn over and over again what is possible and frustrating about it, and the essential role of American leadership, the more I become convinced that there is no longer a clear distinction between what is foreign and domestic," Clinton enthused.

" . . . The longer I stay here, the more convinced I become that all my successors in the 21st Century will have to find different words for domestic and foreign. They'll probably talk about security and economic policy. And 10 years from now, the patterns of speech will be entirely different. People will be discussing things that happened within our borders and beyond our borders in general categories, rather than foreign and domestic, because they are tending to flow together in the global economy."

A few minutes later, looking still further into his crystal ball, the President mused that a generation from now, "at least there's a chance that the world will not involve the potential of these great-nation conflicts. All the great nations will be holding their heads, figuring out what to do in a world where everybody can move around with relative freedom, and there's all this integration, and you can move money around and all that, and so organized groups basically have the capacity to reap destruction everywhere. And we need to think about what we're doing that will minimize that tomorrow, or maximize that tomorrow, in addition to the great-nation conflicts that we can foresee over the next decade or so. "

These rambling ruminations seemed intended to make Clinton sound properly futuristic. The question is whether they are true.

Chances are excellent that we will still be talking about domestic and foreign policy in the 21st Century. It may sound appealing to talk about a world without borders, but with the end of the Cold War, the role of the great nations of the world seems to become ever more important, not less so.

Actually, Clinton's sudden flight into futurism provides insight into some of his own strengths and weaknesses in foreign policy.

He is good at forging links between foreign affairs and the domestic economy. During the George Bush Administration, the foreign policy team often complained privately that domestic policy was a mess, as though the two sides of the Bush White House were disconnected and in competition with one another. Under Clinton, such conflicts are minimized.

But Clinton still doesn't seem adept at or comfortable with what he terms "great nations." His dealings with European allies, with Russia, Japan and China, have not been smooth.

Bush's approach was to rely on personal diplomacy--reaching back to his experience as vice president, when he was regularly dispatched to attend funerals overseas for President Ronald Reagan. Bush was forever referring to other world leaders as "my dear friend."

Clinton didn't come to office with the same background. He can't depend on personal diplomacy in the same way as Bush, and might not want to anyway. Rather, Clinton seems to think he can deal with the world's leading powers through abstract principles or ideas--but then keeps making up and changing the principles as he goes along.

Consider his dealings with China and Taiwan. Asked in Wednesday's interview about his decision last spring to allow Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui to make an unprecedented trip to the United States, Clinton defended it by invoking broad principles.

"In our country, we have the constitutional right to travel, we have the constitutional right to speak," the President said. "It is very difficult in America to justify not allowing a citizen of the world, who is eminent and not a criminal, not allowing such a person to come to his college reunion and to travel around our country and to say whatever's on his mind."

Constitutional right to travel? Does that mean that Fidel Castro can get a visa to come see the World Series? Could Taiwan's president come back to his alma mater, Cornell, again this week, or might Taiwan's defense and foreign ministers give speeches in Washington?

Of course not. In fact, Clinton has already promised an infuriated China that in the future, visas to top Taiwan leaders will be granted very rarely. Clinton seems to have come up with Lee's "constitutional right to travel" as an after-the-fact justification.

His Administration originally opposed the trip but then discovered the new constitutional right when Congress voted last spring, by overwhelming margins, in favor of Lee's trip. It's a principle that was applied once and may not be applied in the future.

Ultimately, Clinton is struggling with the task of conveying to the American people a foreign policy, and a role for America, that fit the complexities of the world after the Cold War.

Bush threw up his hands and confessed that he lacked what he called "the vision thing." Clinton seems to be trying to offer a New Age vision of foreign affairs. But so far it is falling flat. He--and we--can be grateful enough that, after nearly three years, Clinton seems to be learning to manage foreign policy better from day to day.

The International Outlook column appears here every other Monday.

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