Clinton’s foreign policy was unimpressive

When President Clinton gave his last State of the Union address last week, he launched a revamped domestic-policy program meant to help define his legacy and affirm the progress of his administration. He spoke little, however, about foreign policy.
A series of excerpted highlights produced by the White House press office mentioned drugs, education and gun control, but included not a word about international issues.
It is not as though Clinton has not faced daunting foreign-policy challenges in this last year of his administration. But this graduate of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service would not have Americans remember his foreign policy themes as defining characteristics of his administration.
Perhaps this is because Clinton has taken few bold and memorable steps with his foreign policy through the past seven years. In fact, his policy has failed to consistently establish themes separating the nature of his policy from the nature of the preceding Bush administration’s foreign policy.
Clinton never repudiated Bush’s extravagantly staged Persian Gulf War, which faced wide-ranging criticism from progressives throughout the past decade. His military intervention in Iraq early last year was criticized for poor timing, misuse of United Nations mandates and a lack of fairness toward Saddam Hussein, all charges reminiscent of Bush’s progressive critics a decade ago.
Despite running on a China policy less tolerant of human-rights violations during his 1992 campaign, Clinton has consistently renewed China’s Most Favored Nation trading status and condemns China’s intolerance of political dissidents only sporadically. Withholding the highlight of Hillary Clinton’s 1995 speech at the United Nations Conference on Women near Beijing, the administration has shown little concern for human and political rights in China.
Clinton’s internationalist policy of economic engagement has continued with Russia. Billions of dollars in loans aimed at sparking Russia’s debt- and corruption-ridden economy, combined with goading Russia’s establishment leaders toward further economic liberalism, have met dubious success. But Clinton has reacted only by eliminating most direct aid to Russia and keeping quiet about the unsavory involvement in Chechnya.
Clinton continues a harsh policy, if a somewhat less harsh attitude, toward Cuba. While he has reasoned with North Korea’s leaders on some points through his term, Clinton has not seized the opportunity that more conciliatory South Korean leadership provides to take steps toward eventual Korean reunification. Clinton has not even fully embraced President Mohammed Khatami’s push for political liberalization in Iran. Clinton’s national security staff has been quick to label several unstable countries as “rogue” or even “terrorist-influenced” states.
Under Clinton, the defense budget has bloomed. The size and shape of our military, many observers would argue, has not changed significantly from the cold war days. While he promised to “close the gap between the world’s have and have-nots” in his State of the Union speech, Clinton proposed no new money for aid to poor nations.
When Clinton first took office, Secretary of State Warren Christopher and National Security Adviser Anthony Lake were willing to take on new foreign-policy initiatives stemming from Democrats’ criticism of the preceding twelve years’ Reagan-Bush era. They were criticized thoroughly in the national media for espousing indecisive policy that could not define what our country’s national interests were. Such criticisms might have intimidated Clinton. Current Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger have created an arguably more predictable foreign policy with more nationalist tones.
Apart from accomplishments in the Balkans and the Middle East, Clinton’s foreign policy — especially his policy of the last five years — has resembled what George Bush’s foreign policy might have been if he were re-elected: It is internationalist in nature, it supports American corporate interests, it cuts off “rogue” nations from the international community, it nurses the tenuous progress of Russia and China with continued economic help and is assertive in establishing what our national security interests are, as evidenced in the continued maintenance of NATO.
Bush inherited his foreign policy from the Ronald Reagan administration, and it is Reagan’s foreign-policy legacy that Clinton’s most resembles: He presided over a time of great international change — adjustment to life after the Cold War — with a coalition of internationalist Western leaders intent on preserving the prosperity and security of leading Western countries. As Reagan’s closest foreign friend was British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Clinton’s closest friend is the ideologically similar Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Clinton and Blair have cautiously maintained the post-Cold War balance of power and economic growth Reagan and Thatcher sought and claimed the decade before. In doing so, they have not fundamentally departed from the preceding duo’s intentions.
Just because Clinton failed to accomplish any bold or new initiatives does not mean his foreign policy has been a failure. But there are many challenges in this post-Cold War world he has not taken on, leaving his foreign policy legacy less than notable.
Noah Dvorak is a sophomore in economics and East Asian studies. He welcomes comments to [email protected] Send letters to the editor to [email protected]