US: On foreign policy, Clinton mostly timid

by Jim Lobe

Washington, 17 Jan 2001 (IPS) -- Despite his enduring popularity and the unparalleled global influence achieved by the United States during his term, President Bill Clinton’s eight years of foreign policy-making were marked mostly by timidity and the persistent fear of offending powerful domestic interests.

On major issues involving human rights, disarmament and the global environment, Clinton backed down time and again in the face of opposition from right-wing forces in Congress, the corporate world or the Pentagon.

And despite clearly enjoying the international spotlight and the intricacies of diplomacy, Clinton’s attention to events outside US borders, aside from the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, was mostly fitful and sporadic, with the result that lower-level officials frequently felt they lacked political support in the White House necessary to see things through.

The result was an often rudderless and reactive foreign policy that, in the early days especially, seemed to careen from crisis to crisis and, later, to bump from event to event and from position to position, depending on which domestic constituency could exert the most pressure at any given moment.

“The president has a great mind and a tremendous capacity to empathise with his interlocutors - both qualities made for effective diplomacy,” according to one senior administration official. “But, with a few exceptions, he just didn’t get that involved. The result was a lot of missed opportunities.”

That assessment - that Clinton’s was an administration of “missed opportunities” - is one that has been often made about his eight years as president in relation to both domestic and foreign affairs.

“One feels sadness for the lost promise of this extraordinarily skilful politician,” wrote William Greider, an influential left-wing commentator, in “The Nation” magazine last year.

Greider, also a prominent critic of the US-style globalization which Clinton came to embrace, argued that Clinton’s initial Faustian bargain - with Wall Street and Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan - greatly narrowed his margin for manoeuvre domestically and forced him to betray the populist ideas which helped get him elected in 1992.

Similarly, he came into office as something of a Wilsonian idealist, committed to strengthening the United Nations even, if necessary, at the expense of Washington’s freedom of action, and putting human rights at the core of US foreign policy.

Thus, he pledged a policy of “assertive multilateralism” during the 1992 campaign and promised to make ties with China conditional on improvements in its human rights performance.

Within 18 months of his inaugural, both notions had gone out the window. US support for a strengthened United Nations capable of peace-making as well as peace-keeping fell victim to a disastrous US-led manhunt for a Somali warlord. Overnight, Washington developed a distinct allergy to UN peace-keeping, to such an extent that it actually prevented the world body from stopping the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

And, although his rhetoric on the United Nations remained supportive, Clinton repeatedly declined to take on right-wing interests, embodied by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms, determined to weaken the world body.

His pledge to tie trade preferences for Beijing to its human rights performance similarly fell victim to excruciating pressure from US corporations which were pouring tens of billions of dollars in new investment into China.

“Clinton’s policy (on human rights) was a semi-realist policy,” according to Thomas Carruthers, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Where human rights were in conflict with other interests, (they) lost out; when they weren’t, human rights won.”

The same corporate interests which won out in China were also responsible for what many analysts say will be Clinton’s most enduring foreign-policy legacy - global economic engagement. In this view, the successful ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Mexico and Canada, the creation of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the approval by Congress of a far-reaching trade accord with China that will permit the latter to enter the WTO are Clinton’s most important international accomplishments.

Clinton insisted that these efforts would benefit not only US corporate interests but would also have vast political consequences as well, by tying countries to a global system which rewards those countries which adhere to the rule of law, respect human rights, protect the environment and pursue friendly relations with their neighbours.

Whether this actually proves to be the case remains to be seen, of course. Many analysts note that the human rights situation in China, Central Asia and elsewhere has deteriorated despite their growing economic integration with the rest of the world. And, of course, Clinton declined to apply the same reasoning he used in China’s case to other countries, such as Cuba and Iran, where powerful domestic constituencies strongly opposed economic engagement of any kind.

Moreover, despite the longest-running economic expansion in US history and record low rates of unemployment, Clinton proved unable to bring along his own Democrats in support of his trade-opening initiatives. A sharp downturn in the US economy could still wreak havoc on his globalization legacy.

Clinton’s focus on economics as a way of achieving US policy goals resulted in important institutional shifts in foreign policy-making itself over the last eight years.

The influence of the Treasury Department - which is particularly close to Wall Street, as well as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) - soared during Clinton’s administration, largely at the expense of the State Department, a favourite target of Republican right-wingers who captured Congress in the 1994 mid-term elections.

In thrall to the “Washington Consensus” for all-out economic liberalisation, Treasury officials lacked the insight of political and intelligence officers who reported serious problems with such giants as Russia and Indonesia but who could not get the White House’s attention until it was too late.

The Pentagon also gained influence at State’s expense, with the result that the administration, despite Clinton’s own instincts, often behaved unilaterally, and mostly in a negative manner.

In addition to making it more difficult for the UN to deploy peace-keeping forces, the Pentagon and its right-wing allies in Congress prevailed in persuading Clinton not to sign the treaty banning anti-personnel mines and, until 31 December, the Rome treaty to create the International Criminal Court (ICC), a permanent tribunal to prosecute war crimes, torture and genocide.