Think Again: Clinton’s Foreign Policy
Views on William Jefferson Clinton's record as a world leader have been sharply divided. Where supporters see pragmatic leadership and bold innovation, critics see improvised initiatives that have left America adrift. In preparation for the coming rash of retrospectives, FP's editors look at which aspects of the conventional wisdom are likely to stand the test of time.
Clinton's Foreign Policy Lacked Vision
Clinton’s Foreign Policy Lacked Vision
He offered a vision, but nobody paid any attention. "I long for Bush’s ‘vision!’" Harvard professor Jorge Domínguez declared sardonically, expressing the mood of many critics who have routinely accused President Bill Clinton of "strategic incoherence" and "tactical ad hocery."
Yet for all this critique’s popularity, it has two flaws: First, Bill Clinton did indeed have a clear vision of the United States’ role in the post–Cold War world, one that he articulated frequently. Second, the essence of that vision was not so different from the one offered by his predecessor, President George Bush.
Few people remember that even before the Berlin Wall fell, Bush delivered a keynote speech arguing that the West had to move beyond a "grand strategy … based on the concept of containment" of communism, and that it was incumbent upon the United States to encourage a "growing community of democracies anchoring international peace and stability, and a dynamic free-market system generating prosperity and progress on a global scale." How did contemporary pundits rate this new blueprint for U.S. foreign policy? A "vacuity" was the assessment of the New York Times, while others derided it as "too cautious" and lacking "vision."
Likewise, as a candidate in 1992, Clinton chastised his opponent for failing to enunciate a "new American purpose." But one year later, National Security Advisor Anthony Lake delivered a speech outlining Clinton’s agenda for the post–Cold War world, declaring: "The successor to a doctrine of containment must be a strategy of enlargement — enlargement of the world’s free community of market democracies." As it did for Bush, this grand vision largely fell flat (Yale political scientist Gaddis Smith called it "banality on stilts"), but the notion of expanding the community of free-market democracies emerged as the central tenet of the Clinton administration’s foreign policy. At the beginning of the second Clinton term, National Security Advisor Sandy Berger put forth a set of goals — from building a united, peaceful Europe to strengthening the security and economic architecture in the Asia-Pacific — that, while perhaps not exactly visionary, were firmly within the mainstream of U.S. foreign policy. A fairer critique of the Clinton administration’s foreign policy might focus less on a lack of vision and more on a lack of attention.
Clinton Was the "Globalization President"
Yes. Bill Clinton understood sooner, better, and more profoundly than many other leaders that globalization was not simply a trendy buzzword, noting that: "Everything from the strength of our economy, to the safety of our cities, to the health of our people depends on events not only within our border but half a world away."
Clinton’s tenure has coincided with a historic convergence of technological and political trends (the Internet, democratization, open markets, and porous borders) that facilitated an unprecedented level of global integration. Not content to let the United States be carried along by the currents and tides of globalization, Clinton sought to accelerate and harness these forces and mitigate their volatility. He led intense efforts to lower trade and investment barriers — completing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico, concluding the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), supporting the creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO), and urging Congress to pass the African Growth and Opportunity Act. As AIDS and other infectious diseases spread throughout developing nations, the White House pressed the World Bank and industrialized countries to increase public health funding. As open markets accelerated not only cross-border investments but also cross-border crime, Clinton pushed for initiatives to combat international money laundering because it fosters corruption and market instability. The White House also made the environment a high priority, creating a new under secretary for global affairs at the State Department and better integrating environmental issues into its foreign-policy planning.
But Clinton often embraced short-term tactics that undermined his long-term global vision. Rather than rebuke antiglobalization protestors at the Seattle WTO negotiations and make the case for further trade liberalization, Clinton tried to appease domestic constituencies by calling for strengthened labor standards, possibly enforced by trade sanctions. His earlier support for regional trade arrangements such as the Free Trade Area of the Americas and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum faded with his political failure to secure fast-track trade negotiating authority from Congress. And even as the White House sponsored a record number of trade agreements, it also rubber-stamped a record number of sanctions, including controversial "secondary sanctions," which punish foreign companies that do business with Iran, Libya, and Cuba.
Clinton Was a Champion of Human Rights
When it suited him. At the World Conference on Human Rights, convened by the United Nations in 1993, the Clinton administration made it clear that it had little patience for those who challenge the universality of human rights. Declaring that relativism could not "become the last refuge of repression," Secretary of State Warren Christopher forcefully denounced efforts led by China, Syria, Iran, and Cuba to define human rights on the basis of "various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds." Seven years later, Christopher’s successor Madeleine Albright furthered this view when she convened a conference of more than 100 nations in Warsaw, Poland, to draft a global declaration on the universal principles of democracy.
Whereas the Clinton administration has firmly rejected cultural and religious relativism, it has embraced the relativism of political and economic expediency. Thus, even as Christopher trumpeted a major new U.S. commitment to human rights at the 1993 U.N. conference, the United States forcibly repatriated Haitian political refugees (a policy that candidate Clinton had declared "must not stand"). Christopher had pledged to limit aid and investment flows to those who desecrate human rights. But the White House authorized military training and assistance to Indonesia and Colombia, despite those countries’ troublesome human rights records. And while the Clinton administration imposed harsh sanctions against dictatorships such as Myanmar and Cuba, it frequently relied on diplomatic and economic incentives to modify the behavior of authoritarian regimes such as China, North Korea, and Syria.
The Clinton administration did match deeds with words when it led military interventions (albeit belatedly) to halt ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo. The so-called Clinton Doctrine — which holds that the United States and its allies will intervene where necessary to prevent genocide and other humanitarian catastrophes — represents a bold departure from the Cold War tenet that narrow, strategic interests alone can justify military engagement abroad. But this doctrine didn’t emerge soon enough to help Rwanda. Haunted by memories of an ill-fated U.S. mission in Somalia, Clinton failed to support a U.N. peacekeeping effort that might have prevented the genocide of more than half a million Tutsis.
Clinton Was the Great Appeaser
He’s no Neville Chamberlain. No doubt Clinton rues the day that he accused President Bush of coddling dictators in China. The White House strategy of engaging Beijing through diplomatic and economic incentives has led to frequent charges of appeasement, with one Republican congressman going so far as to compare Clinton’s China policy with the failed efforts of the British government to moderate Hitler’s behavior in the 1930s.
To be sure, the communist regime in Beijing is not warm and fuzzy. But the United States and China, like two bickering Siamese twins, often find their interests joined at the hip: expanding trade and investment, maintaining peace on the Korean peninsula, fighting international narcotics traffickers, protecting the environment, and limiting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Since Nixon’s historic opening, every successive administration has learned that engaging Beijing offers more opportunities for changing the regime’s behavior than pursuing containment and isolation. During the Clinton era, this approach has yielded definite benefits: China has halted nuclear testing, promised to phase out its nuclear cooperation with Iran, made a concerted effort to enforce intellectual property rights, and reduced trade barriers to U.S. products.
That’s not to say that the Clinton administration has refrained from wielding the big stick when necessary. In the face of congressional pressure, the White House allowed Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to address students at Cornell University in 1995. When China angrily responded to Lee’s visit by conducting military exercises near Taiwan, the United States sent an aircraft carrier to the Taiwan Strait for the first time in 17 years. Three months later, the White House sent two aircraft carriers as a show of strength when China launched missiles in a heavy-handed attempt to intimidate the Taiwanese during their 1996 election.
Cries of appeasement also rang out when the United States negotiated an Agreed Framework with North Korea in 1994, under which North Korea promised to discontinue its nuclear weapons program in exchange for fuel and less-weapons-capable light-water nuclear reactors provided by South Korea, Japan, and the United States. Critics called the arrangement a form of bribery. But a funny thing happened on the way to Munich, or in this case Pyongyang: The Agreed Framework is working. The nuclear weapons program remains frozen, and renewed and invigorated contacts between the two Koreas have raised hopes that limited engagement might yield benefits beyond the arena of arms control.
Clinton Gave Economics the Role It Deserves in Foreign Policy
Yes. From the beginning of his presidency, Clinton recognized that the dominant factors of international relations were shifting from nuclear throwweights to flows of foreign direct investment and trade. He saw the global economy not only as a vehicle for increasing U.S. prosperity, but as a medium for enhancing international stability.
Consequently, in addition to spearheading a record number of free-trade agreements, Clinton gave substantial attention to a whole new class of important countries: large, emerging markets such as India, Mexico, and China. He showed genuine leadership during the 1994 Mexican financial crisis when, ignoring widespread skepticism among pundits and politicians, he bypassed Congress and used his executive authority to prop up the peso with money from the Treasury Department’s Exchange Stabilization Fund. Clinton updated the foreign-policy apparatus of the executive branch, creating a White House "National Economic Council" as a complement to the National Security Council and establishing a "war room" in the Commerce Department that promotes trade missions worldwide. The president also relied on a brain trust of first-rate economists — most notably Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, and Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Lawrence Summers — that proved instrumental in containing financial contagion in Russia, Asia, and Brazil.
More fundamentally, Clinton’s strong stewardship of the domestic economy has paid dividends in the form of enhanced U.S. leadership. Recall that back in 1991, the United States faced finger-wagging from the Group of Seven industrialized countries over its burgeoning deficit and lackluster economic performance. Today, the world seeks to emulate the booming U.S. economy, and it is the United States that finds itself delivering stern lectures to economic laggards such as Japan.
Clinton Lost Russia
No. It was never the United States’ to lose. With the benefit of hindsight, the United States could have taken some steps to help stem Russia’s economic downslide. In 1991, when George Bush was still in the White House, the United States could have rallied massive Western financial assistance to stabilize the Russian economy in the wake of high inflation. The Clinton administration should have denounced, not supported, Moscow’s "loan-for-shares" privatization scheme that put Russia’s most prized business assets into the hands of an oligarchy of corrupt bankers.
But the Clinton administration’s chief mistake was overselling reform. Russian politicians promised too much too soon, and the White House (along with Western economic advisors) only contributed to that exuberance. Reformers did not adequately take into account the extent to which 75 years of communist mismanagement and hypermilitarization had distorted the Russian economy. Today, the White House says it was naive to believe that the former Soviet Union could be transformed overnight into a flourishing free-market society — but such candor would have been welcome eight years ago.
Pundits have delivered ex post facto denunciations of the Clinton administration for not pushing Moscow to build the regulatory infrastructure necessary to soften the blows of economic "shock therapy" or to institute the "rule of law" needed to protect private property and limit corruption. These institutions, however, are not built in a few years but gradually develop over the span of a generation. And time was a luxury Russia didn’t have. Rapid privatization had drawbacks, but it was needed to break the power of communist-era bosses who could have leveraged their control of vital industries to retard further efforts at economic reform. The Kremlin had to put aside efforts to control inflation amidst the urgent need to increase supply and fill store shelves.
The Clinton administration did try to help Moscow help itself. It assisted Russia in drafting a new civil code, criminal code, and bankruptcy laws. It sponsored programs to make the executive branch, the courts, and the Duma more effective. But such efforts could only go so far when Moscow was reluctant to implement market reforms. And at the end of the day, the West was reluctant to impose strict conditionalities on an already unstable ex-superpower that possessed more than 20,000 nuclear warheads.
Also lost amidst the "Who Lost Russia?" debate is the acknowledgment that, despite 1,000 years of authoritarian rule, Russia today remains on the path toward democracy. The oft-repeated Western fears that Moscow would revert to communist rule or embrace hard-line nationalists such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky have so far failed to materialize. In fact, every time they have gone to the polls, Russians have supported candidates who have pledged to go forward, not backward to the communist past.
The Republican Congress Held Clinton’s Foreign Policy Hostage
Politics has never stopped at the water’s edge. The Republican-led Congress rarely missed an opportunity to micromanage Clinton’s foreign policy, whether it was restructuring the State Department, haggling over terms for paying dues to the United Nations, or demanding that Latin American countries pass certification requirements in the war against drugs as a precondition for foreign aid. But such behavior is hardly new. As historian Edward S. Corwin observed, the U.S. constitution "is an invitation to struggle for the privilege of directing American foreign policy." That struggle was just as pronounced when the Democrats controlled Congress. In the 1970s, the Nixon White House engaged in a fierce tug of war with congressional critics over the conduct of the war in Indochina, and in the 1980s Democrats repeatedly invoked the Independent Counsel Act to prosecute White House officials for "obstructing Congressional inquiries" into President Ronald Reagan’s policies toward Central America.
For its part, the Clinton White House didn’t see its struggles with Congress as simply a dispute over policies. National Security Advisor Sandy Berger drew the battle lines when he declared that "the internationalist consensus that has prevailed in this country for more than 50 years increasingly is being challenged by a new isolationism heard and felt particularly in the Congress." Branding Republicans as isolationists, however, was a cheap shot. They didn’t necessarily reject internationalism, just the liberal, globalist brand of internationalism that Clinton was peddling (what conservative thinkers William Kristol and Robert Kagan have termed "the global buddy system"). The skepticism voiced by some in Congress has been voiced by Americans for generations — a skepticism of international entanglements that restrict U.S. options in matters of defense or commerce.
Indeed, the accusation of isolationism seemed like a fig leaf to cover the White House’s inability to win its way with Congress. When the Clinton administration made a genuine, concerted, and well-orchestrated effort to work with key Congress members to sell them on the merits of its policies, it had notable successes: NAFTA, WTO, Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) with China, NATO expansion, and ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention. But whenever the White House failed to expend the effort and political capital to engage its partners in the legislative branch, its initiatives suffered — and sometimes succumbed to — partisan sniping, as was the case with the debate over funding for the North Korean Agreed Framework and ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
Clinton Wagged the Dog
Where’s the evidence? "Arf, Arf" declared a Canadian newspaper following the 1998 U.S. airstrikes against the Afghan stronghold of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. Commentators worldwide have routinely accused Clinton of "wagging the dog" — a phrase inspired by the title of a satirical film wherein the U.S. president stages a fake war against Albania to dodge a sex scandal — claiming he dropped bombs on Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, and Bin Laden every time he wanted to distract national attention from his myriad domestic problems.
Nobody, however, has been able to offer any real proof, aside from the startling observation that international crises always seem to coincide with the president’s personal ones. Given the almost daily eruptions of scandal in the Clinton White House and the never resolved crises in Iraq, Yugoslavia, the Middle East, and Africa, finding a correlation is just a matter of scanning the morning headlines. (And you can be sure that if anyone on the Joint Chiefs of Staff had suspected that U.S. troops were being asked to shed blood for Monica Lewinsky, you would have heard about it.) However, it is fair to say that the prosecutorial zeal of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr was a source of constant distraction. "It’s like he isn’t there," the head of the World Bank observed following a meeting with Clinton during the days leading up to the president’s grand jury testimony.
But even if Clinton didn’t bomb Baghdad to avert impeachment, there is no doubt that he allowed public opinion at times to excessively influence his national security decisions. Former National Security Advisor Anthony Lake has noted that his efforts (such as compelling the president to act on Haiti) were often complicated by political staffers whispering in the president’s ear. "Every White House is highly political, or should be, if it wants to get things done," Lake acknowledged. "But in the Clinton White House, politics was too often seen as an end in itself."
Clinton Dangerously Weakened U.S. Defenses
News of the United States’ demise has been greatly exaggerated. Defense spending did not begin a precipitous free-fall when Clinton took the oath of office, but rather has been winding down since the end of the Cold War. Today, U.S. defense spending has dropped from around $400 billion a year to about $300 billion — yielding a $100 billion peace dividend that helped eliminate the United States’ gaping Cold War budget deficit and still leaves defense spending higher than that of the next dozen highest-spending nations combined.
The United States maintains about 1.4 million active duty service members, whose training and education (99 percent are high school graduates) are the envy of the world. The U.S. Army boasts nearly 8,000 Abrams tanks, while the Navy has twice as many principal combat ships as Russia and China put together. According to Michael O’Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution, current U.S. military capabilities meet the test of the Pentagon’s "two-war strategy" to simultaneously fight and win wars in two different theaters.
Despite claims that (to borrow the phrase of one critic) "the counterculturalist-in-chief" has had nothing but contempt for the armed forces he commands, Clinton time and again has shown considerable deference to the wishes of his Joint Chiefs of Staff. He refused to sign the international treaty banning land mines because the U.S. army felt it would hamper its defense of South Korea. He did not support the International Criminal Court because of Pentagon concerns that U.S. soldiers might be tried as war criminals. And his reluctance to intervene in Haiti, Bosnia, and Rwanda were as much due to the concerns of the Joint Chiefs as to opposition in Congress.
Thanks to Clinton, the World Is Better off Today Than It Was Eight Years Ago
It’s too soon to tell. By what yardstick do you measure Bill Clinton’s foreign policy? The president is extremely popular abroad, but that might be more an indicator of his personal appeal than his stewardship of world affairs. If you add up the raw numbers, the world is substantially wealthier (though not necessarily healthier) than it was eight years ago. There are fewer wars and fewer nations in possession of nuclear weapons, yet international arms sales remain a booming business. These trends, however, might have been inevitable regardless of who occupied the Oval Office.
Perhaps a president’s foreign policy is best judged by how its legacy endures the passage of time. Consider, for example, that when Ronald Reagan left office, the Soviet Union controlled most of the Eurasian landmass, Latin American economies were mired in their "lost decade," and Israel was in a state of war with most of its Arab neighbors. Within just a few years, the Soviet Union collapsed, Israel signed successive peace treaties with the Palestine Liberation Organization and Jordan, and Latin America embraced wide-ranging economic reforms.
What sort of world has Bill Clinton wrought? He painstakingly assembled an impressive framework of policy initiatives to promote global peace and prosperity. That framework, however, rests on some very shaky foundations. For instance, the Clinton administration has chalked up a remarkable tally of peace agreements during the last eight years, including the Good Friday Accord that ended decades of fratricidal conflict in Northern Ireland. But a broader Middle East peace treaty remains stalled as Israelis and Palestinians are still deadlocked; the peace accords in Sierra Leone are already coming apart at the seams; and long-term peace in Bosnia and Kosovo depends on the ongoing presence of peacekeepers, whose future remains uncertain amidst congressional concerns over the burden such missions place on U.S. armed forces.
Also uncertain is Clinton’s mercantilist tenet that globalization is the best guarantor of international peace. Nearly 90 years ago, a best-selling book titled The Great Illusion argued that "international finance has become so interdependent and so interwoven with trade and industry that… political and military power can in reality do nothing." Two world wars proved differently.
Moreover, globalization breeds its own discontents. Public support for global trade agreements steadily declined even as the United States has continued to prosper. (Imagine the public mood should the U.S. economy go into a tailspin.) The protests against the WTO in Seattle and the bitter debate over granting permanent normal trade relations status to China are just two of the most recent examples of the challenges that policymakers face in trying to accommodate the interests of organized labor, environmentalists, and human rights activists. Finally, although the world is wealthier than it was eight years ago, income inequality is also on the rise. Politicians eager to redistribute wealth might be inclined to embrace self-defeating policies, such as taxes that scare away investors and protectionist policies that inhibit trade. Bill Clinton might have helped usher in the age of global interdependence, but it will be incumbent upon his successors to make globalization sustainable.
More from Foreign Policy
No, the World Is Not Multipolar
The idea of emerging power centers is popular but wrong—and could lead to serious policy mistakes.
America Prepares for a Pacific War With China It Doesn’t Want
Embedded with U.S. forces in the Pacific, I saw the dilemmas of deterrence firsthand.
America Can’t Stop China’s Rise
And it should stop trying.
The Morality of Ukraine’s War Is Very Murky
The ethical calculations are less clear than you might think.