George Bush must be scratching his head. President Bill Clinton, who came into office promising to focus like a laser on the domestic economy, is redefining his mission. Ground troops in Bosnia, a high-profile visit from Mexico's president, a major presidential address on foreign policy: As the 1996 election looms ever larger, Clinton is positioning himself as a foreign-policy President.
Two questions come to mind: Why the shift? And: Will it work?
The first question is easy, say cynics. With a deeply partisan Republican majority in Congress, foreign policy is the one area where the President is still free to shape the public agenda. Clinton doesn't need permission from Congress to hold a summit with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, launch a Middle East peace offensive or conduct nuclear-weapons talks with North Korea. On domestic policy today, the President must haggle with Congress and he starts out from a position of weakness; on foreign policy, he can still grab the headlines.
Then there's the stature question. Foreign policy makes Presidents look presidential. Let Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas and Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) grub for caucus votes in Iowa while Clinton works with Yeltsin to stop nuclear proliferation.
But enough petty cynicism. As the first post-Cold War President, Clinton has a historical responsibility to develop an overall framework for U.S. foreign policy in this new era. While it is true that success or failure will enhance or diminish his political prospects, the consequences of Clinton's foreign-policy work will be with us far longer than the results of the next election.
In a speech last week, Clinton gave his take on U.S. foreign policy in the post-Cold War world. Foreign policy, Clinton said, hasn't become less important since the end of the Cold War. In fact, it is becoming more important.
Why? Because the distinction between foreign and domestic policy is breaking down. Look at one of the hottest issues today: immigration. Is this a domestic or a foreign-policy issue?
With the rise of the global marketplace, bread-and-butter political issues have foreign-policy implications. U.S. growth depends largely on exports: This leads to the need for an active trade policy. The environment is, by definition, a global issue. Control of illegal drugs depends on international cooperation.
Foreign policy is domestic policy, Clinton says and, as a result, isolationism isn't just wrong--it's impossible. America can't solve its domestic problems--the problems Clinton was elected to attack--without a successful foreign policy.
Clinton argues that successful foreign policy requires American leadership. Without U.S. leadership, the world will drift--as Europeans drifted over Bosnia until the United States elbowed them aside.
From this point of view, committing U.S. forces to police a cease-fire in Bosnia isn't getting ourselves mixed up in other people's quarrels--it is providing leadership in the international arena to protect national interests at home.
Finally, Clinton returned to a theme that has marked his Administration from the beginning: That the new centerpiece for U.S. foreign policy after the Cold War should be the expansion of freedom--free markets and free democratic institutions--around the world. Free markets make the world richer, Clinton contends, and so increase economic opportunities in the United States. And free nations--democracies--make better and more peaceful neighbors and partners.
Much of this is true, and the President deserves great credit for making a strong public case for his foreign-policy vision. Furthermore, after some embarrassing fluffs and wobbles, his foreign-policy team has now settled down. The State Department, in particular, now seems to be working well. The Treasury Department earned international and financial-market respect for its response to the dollar crisis earlier this year, and the Commerce Department, despite missteps in its auto-parts negotiations with Japan, has largely been effective in promoting U.S. commercial interests abroad.
The Clinton Administration can now point to solid successes in international affairs. The negotiations with North Korea have at least temporarily averted a crisis. China has come back to the bargaining table after the rupture over the Taiwanese president's U.S. trip. The Middle East peace process is inching forward. Despite widespread skepticism, the occupation of Haiti has, so far, been a success. Though the North American Free Trade Agreement remains a political liability, at least Mexico has started to repay its emergency loans. The jury is still out on Bosnia, but the Administration continues to show the flexibility and resolve that a final settlement will require.
Even so, the new, higher foreign-policy profile contains serious political and policy risks. The 25,000 U.S. ground troops headed for Bosnia will be 25,000 Administration hostages to fortune. Until Bosnia settles down, the Administration will be one car bomb away from disaster.
More dangerously, the Administration's basic concept--making the extension of freedom the core of U.S. foreign policy--is more slogan than strategy. Attractive as it sounds, in its current form it cannot provide a durable basis for overall policy.
The connection Clinton wants to make between the global free market and higher living standards for average American households is not easy to make. Since 1973, world trade has become far more free, but the real incomes of U.S. workers have fallen. NAFTA's profound unpopularity gives Patrick J. Buchanan an issue he can ride to the GOP convention, and blue-collar disaffection over Clinton's trade policy remains a serious liability.
The extension of political democracy is also much tougher than it looks. Democracies don't spring up over night like mushrooms. Democracy in Britain and France came after hundreds of years of revolution and turmoil, with plenty of backsliding along the way. Don't even ask about Germany and Japan.
It is sad but true that there is little or nothing one Administration can do to bring Western-style democracy to places like Singapore and Indonesia, much less to Russia and China. It is never wise to base foreign policy on impossible dreams.
Americans want to live in a democratic world, and perhaps someday we will, but U.S. foreign policy must cope with a world in which not all countries are democratic and not all democracies are either stable or peaceful.
These are serious problems, but let's not get carried away. Clinton has begun the task of redefining U.S. foreign policy for the post-Cold War world, and he has made this a major priority. So far, so good.
To lay the foundation for a workable, sustainable foreign policy in the post-Cold War world is the greatest possible service Clinton could do for the country. And it would also ensure that his term of office--whether four or eight years--would be treated with respect by future historians and remembered with gratitude by his fellow citizens.