The Irrelevant Election

Whether it's Al Gore or George W. Bush, the result will be the same: wishy-washy foreign policy driven by the competing interests of new elites and rising tensions between Washington and its closest allies.

By the standards of U.S. politics, Campaign 2000 has been heartening for internationalists. None of the leading candidates, during the primaries or since, has espoused the isolationism that lurks within both mainstream parties. Issues like missile defense, relations with China and Russia, and humanitarian intervention have not been exactly center stage; but they have received respectful airings. And unlike 1992, when a telegenic Southern governor made a virtue of his inexperience in international affairs, this year’s contest features a telegenic Southern governor anxious to mask his ignorance.

This seeming wave of internationalism has prompted many observers to get their hopes up. There is talk that a new president, unencumbered by Bill Clinton’s short attention span, may impose a new consistency on foreign policy, thereby strengthening alliances, resuming the push for freer trade, and refreshing U.S. commitment to the international system. It would be nice if these things came to pass. But the truth is that, at a time when globalization is driving most nations to cede sovereignty to markets and treaties, Washington looks insistently inward. And November’s election is not going to change that.

Consider the way globalization is molding other countries, and how strikingly exempt the United States remains from those same influences. Fewer and fewer nations aspire to an independent monetary policy: The 11 countries of the euro zone have given up their currencies, and more are lining up to join; central banks from Hong Kong to Argentina have adopted a dollar peg; Ecuador is in the process of abandoning its currency outright in favor of the dollar. The United States, by contrast, need not contemplate submission to higher monetary forces. The dollar is the higher force to which others must surrender. Equally, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) may appear to be sovereignty-crushing bullies in much of the world, but for the United States these institutions actually enhance its power — they act as agents and amplifiers of U.S. government policy.

The world has embarked on a series of negotiations that are eroding state power, from the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change to the International Criminal Court, from the land mine ban to the Uruguay Round deal that created the World Trade Organization (WTO). Leading industrialized economies are influential in the negotiation process, though they generally feel compelled to respect the rules that result from it. But the United States, alone among nations, both dominates the rule-making process and ignores the resulting rules. The Clinton administration played a strong role in negotiating the Kyoto Protocol, yet the Senate has ruled out U.S. ratification of the agreement. The United States helped create the International Criminal Court, but now threatens a boycott. The United States shaped the WTO, insisting, for instance, that the organization include protections for intellectual property. But Congress has imposed unilateral amendments on the intellectual property regime and has at various times mulled legislation that would withdraw the United States from the WTO if it rules against U.S. commercial interests too frequently.

The United States is by far the most influential voice at the World Bank and the IMF, sometimes corralling these institutions to finance policies designed by the U.S. Treasury. But Congress assails the bank and fund by convening panels of experts to criticize them and threatening to cut off their funding. In the same way, Washington has bent the United Nations to its will, ousting its former secretary-general despite European and other international resistance and imposing a series of administrative reforms upon it; yet the United States thinks nothing of holding up its dues to the U.N., of bypassing the U.N. Security Council by intervening in Kosovo without an explicit mandate, or of refusing to pay for peacekeeping missions that U.S. diplomats have demanded.

This U.S. unilateralism has fostered resentment, as well as a yearning for a president-elect who will do something to make Washington a better global citizen. Past presidents, after all, have periodically turned the United States into the foremost advocate of internationalism: Woodrow Wilson championed the League of Nations; Franklin Roosevelt committed the United States to the Allied effort in World War II; Harry Truman pushed forward with the Marshall Plan; and Ronald Reagan won the Cold War on behalf of the world’s democracies.

But neither a President Al Gore nor a President George W. Bush would be a hero to internationalists. Although the United States is remarkably immune to the forces that are eroding sovereignty in other parts of the world, the president faces a different set of constraints that erode his power just as surely. However much the contemporary theater of politics encourages us to think of the U.S. president as supreme maker of peace and war, his influence is actually fading. Domestic constraints, many of them inspired by globalization, are reinforcing age-old U.S. unilateralism, fostering tension between the United States and an increasingly interdependent world order.


To see how little innovation can be expected from the next president, or even the president-after-next, first put aside the myth that Bill Clinton’s personal shortcomings account for the recent drift in U.S. foreign policy. True, in many respects the Clinton team has failed. It has failed to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. It has failed to prevent nuclear proliferation in India and Pakistan. It has failed to stop the terrifying spread of aids. It has failed to come up with a coherent doctrine of humanitarian intervention. But the notion that Clinton is to blame for the United States’ lackluster leadership is wrong. In fact, Clinton has had only a narrow range of policy options. Anybody who doubts it need only examine the foreign policy platforms of the two central candidates aspiring to replace him.

Like Clinton, both Bush and Gore offer an awkward mix of realism and idealism, of national-interest rhetoric and promises to promote U.S. values. "Bush the realist" cautions against too much foreign intervention, declaring that military force is not "the answer to every difficult foreign policy situation." "Gore the realist" cautions against too much foreign intervention, arguing that military action is only justified if "the expected cost is worth what we are protecting by way of our national security interests." Meanwhile, "Bush the idealist" takes the opposite tack, declaring that he believes in "a distinctly American internationalism." And "Gore the idealist," matching his Republican rival nearly word for word, says he believes the United States has "a unique mission."

Pose more specific questions and the similarities hold. Iraq? Both Gore and Bush support the Clinton administration’s hard line, and both share Clinton’s lack of bright ideas on how to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Free trade? Both candidates favor the idea, especially the fast-track negotiating authority that Clinton wanted. Humanitarian intervention? Both support the intervention in Kosovo, and though here the emphasis varies, both share doubts about using U.S. force in African crises such as Rwanda. Likewise, both candidates endorse the Clinton plan to pour money into Colombia’s drug war, and both echo the Clintonian rhetoric about the importance of curbing the demand for drugs within U.S. borders. Both support the Clinton administration’s buildup in defense spending, and both say they would go further.

Both, both, both. These policy similarities almost guarantee that the presidential election will leave U.S. diplomacy unaltered. But behind those similarities lies a deeper truth that seals the deal — and flies in the face of conventional wisdom. U.S. politics, according to the conventionally wise, is sharply polarized these days, with disagreement especially pronounced in the confused area of post–Cold War geostrategy. In fact, consensus on international affairs is remarkably strong in official Washington’s foreign policy circles, and neither Bush nor Gore has much freedom to deviate from it. In the rare instances where they do appear to differ, the gap is either rhetorical or so narrow that it would have little impact on policy.

Take trade, for example. Many Bush supporters believe their candidate would push hard for further trade liberalization, and that he would have kept last November’s WTO summit in Seattle from disintegrating into chaos. On the surface, the claim seems plausible. Clinton infuriated his negotiating partners in Seattle by appearing to endorse the idea of international labor standards in a newspaper interview, and Gore seems much more likely to repeat this provocation than Bush does. Whereas Bush proclaims that trade liberalization will promote a gradual improvement in labor standards over the long run, Gore promises to write worker protections into future trade agreements. Whereas Bush hopes that free trade and growth will ultimately benefit human rights and the environment, Gore says he plans to incorporate these issues into global trade regulations.

These differences of emphasis, though real, are likely to mean almost nothing in practice. First, the Clinton-Gore concessions to environmental and labor lobbies are modest in the extreme. Clinton’s gaffe in Seattle was to say that "[the WTO] should develop these core labor standards, and then they ought to be a part of every trade agreement, and ultimately I would favor a system in which sanctions would come for violating any provision of a trade agreement." But he did not say whether the "core" standards he had in mind would extend beyond minimal gestures, such as prohibitions on child or slave labor. He did not specify how soon "ultimately" might be. And anyway, he was just talking. In practice, the Clinton administration’s only concessions to labor and environmental activists have been two minor tack-ons to the North American Free Trade Agreement (nafta). An environmental provision (more substantive than the labor one) has merely established a secretariat to which greens can complain if a government breaks its own environmental laws; there is nothing so radical as a mechanism to impose U.S. or Canadian environmental standards on Mexico. Moreover, the secretariat is under the thumb of the three nafta governments and is powerless to force compliance with any laws.

Clinton has done what he regards as the minimum necessary to retain support for free trade from environmental groups and labor. It is hard to imagine that his successor, even if his name were Bush, would respond differently to pressures from labor unions, human rights activists, and environmental organizations. To be sure, if Bush were elected, he would owe these constituencies less than Gore would. But Bush would have to recognize that alienating them would be costly. They have the power to organize embarrassing demonstrations, to color media coverage of White House policy, and to frustrate efforts to get fast-track authority and other trade-related objectives through Congress. A President Bush would have to face the fact that a zero-concessions policy to these nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) would cost him large quantities of political capital. The man who loves to describe himself as "a uniter, not a divider" on the campaign trail would likely repeat Clinton’s modest efforts at co-optation.

Thus, the notion that Bush would be a better internationalist on trade is probably wrong. Similarly, whether it is Bush or Gore in the White House, the next U.S. president will find his ideals on a wide range of foreign policy issues boxed in by new systemic constraints.

Foreign Aid: Gore is keener than Bush on foreign assistance, which the vice president describes as "forward engagement" against a new category of security threats such as aids and weak governmental institutions. But whether he manages to send more resources abroad would depend mainly on Congress, which controls the purse strings, and on business lobbyists and NGOs, which pressure Congress into action — or inaction. The importance of NGOs became evident last year when a group called the Better World Campaign, funded by media magnate Ted Turner, threatened to run TV ads against members of Congress who were blocking payment of U.S. dues to the U.N. Partly as a result, Washington’s three-year holdout ended. In the next presidential term, the fate of foreign assistance may depend on the lobbying muscle of groups like the Campaign to Preserve U.S. Global Leadership, a brand new coalition of nearly 300 businesses and interest groups that makes the case for a bigger aid budget.

Africa: Bush has declared that Africa "doesn’t fit into the national strategic interests." But the notion that he would ignore the continent seems a stretch. A long list of groups would insist that he pay attention to Africa’s problems. The International Republican Institute, chaired by Senator John McCain, would demand that he support democratization in places such as Nigeria; Jubilee 2000, an international church-based coalition, would push him to embrace debt relief; the World Wildlife Fund would harangue him about endangered species; and more obscure gadflies would prove that it takes little more than a moral cause and an e-mail address book full of press contacts to embarrass an administration. If Bush were elected, he wouldn’t pay much less attention to Africa than Gore would.

Missile Defense: Bush, more bullish than Gore on national missile defense, favors space- and sea-based systems rather than just the land-based one that Gore has supported. But the recent history of missile defense makes it hard to view any president’s preferences as decisive. Clinton started out as an opponent of missile defense, but pressure from the congressionally appointed Rumsfeld Commission, together with North Korea’s test of a long-range missile, caused him to reverse his policy. President Bush’s or President Gore’s stance on missile defense would likely depend on the behavior of "rogue states" such as North Korea and Iraq, Pentagon estimates of the system’s technical feasibility, and, not least, lobbying by weapons makers. Over the last decade, the defense industry has spent nearly $50 million to promote missile defense.

China: Bush claims he would be tougher on China. He makes much of his statement that China is a strategic rival as opposed to the "strategic partner" that the Clinton-Gore administration dubbed it. But U.S. China policy has followed a fairly steady pattern since Nixon’s opening to Beijing: Every president has favored some kind of engagement with China, while Congress has been more inclined to denounce Chinese human rights abuses, alleged espionage, and so on. This pattern even held after the Tiananmen Square massacre, when George Bush Sr. kept up his engagement policy by sending his national security advisor on secret trips to Beijing, causing an uproar in Congress when news of the meetings broke. The next U.S. president will have to accept that China is both rival and partner. Congressional hawks, driven by human rights groups and lobbies such as the International Campaign for Tibet, will ensure that the element of rivalry remains at the fore. Business interests will ensure that the element of partnership isn’t neglected.

In other words, the distinctions between Bush’s foreign policy and Gore’s foreign policy would turn out to matter surprisingly little. Whoever wins, Congress and a host of lobbies will filter out most of the few real differences in outlook. Moreover, this filtering process will see to it that even the most internationally minded president has a hard time injecting fresh energy into U.S. diplomacy. Congress can be counted upon to reflect polls, and these reveal a deep popular indifference to foreign issues. Plus, Washington lobbies are likely to make the president’s task even harder — despite the fact that many lobbies regard themselves as staunchly internationalist.


There are, to be sure, reasonable objections to this argument. Many claim that the public’s indifference to foreign policy — and hence the indifference of Congress — can be overcome by a determined president. But public apathy is not merely the temporary result of Bill Clinton’s preoccupation with domestic issues. It is a constant of U.S. politics and has survived presidencies of all styles and persuasions. The Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, which has regularly surveyed U.S. attitudes toward foreign policy since 1974, shows the remarkable stability of this indifference. It may be regrettable that in 1998 only 47 percent of Americans were "very interested" in foreign news. But surveys in 1978 and 1986 found that a virtually indistinguishable 48 percent cared.

Others argue that internationalist lobbies might strengthen U.S. partnerships abroad. At first, this prediction seems more plausible. Groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is involved in the Campaign to Preserve U.S. Global Leadership, do seem interested in strengthening U.S. internationalism, while human rights and environmental lobbies have driven internationalist projects such as the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change. Moreover, this kind of elite pressure has underpinned U.S. internationalism in the past. The Chicago Council has also surveyed a sample of these elites — academics, members of Congress, business leaders, and journalists. In every survey over the last quarter century, they have been much more in favor of international engagement than the general population. The strength of U.S. internationalism has depended on the success of elites in winning arguments against the broader public.

The trouble is that the forces of globalization — in particular, the rise of Internet-empowered lobbies — are changing U.S. elites in a way that makes them less likely to win the argument for internationalism. Well-informed groups with the capacity to influence the political process are now vastly more numerous than before. As a result, elites are losing their cohesion. In the past, a smallish group of internationalists concentrated in the State Department, the Ivy League, and the top echelons of the New York City business world formed the bulk of the U.S. foreign-policy community. But now nongovernmental organizations like the World Wildlife Fund, Human Rights Watch, and Oxfam have built up expert staffs, and a host of smaller organizations has grown adept at swaying (or bogging down) Congress and setting the agenda of the media. At many international gatherings, these new elites easily outnumber official delegates. Increasingly, big government is outgunned by big nongovernment. The business lobby has fragmented too: Globalization has driven firms of every size and type to develop a strong interest in U.S. foreign policy.

Inevitably, this expanded international affairs elite speaks with many voices. Environmental groups may be committed internationalists, but their support for a global warming treaty conflicts with the interests of business groups — even though business is also internationalist. Likewise, human rights groups want an international criminal court and a ban on land mines. But this platform puts them at loggerheads with the kind of internationalist who wants to preserve the United States’ freedom to project military power without legal jeopardy. On a host of issues, warring bands of internationalists wage lobbying battles: business versus greens, human rights groups versus U.S.-power traditionalists, or some other permutation.

With internationalist elites squabbling among themselves, the public is bound to pay even less attention to foreign affairs. It used to be that U.S. policy was reliably pro-trade, because protectionist popular sentiment was overcome by an elite consensus about trade’s merits. These days, however, the elite debate on trade is mired in fights over how far to incorporate environmental and labor standards, so the momentum for trade liberalization has faltered. It used to be that a president could take an unpopular diplomatic step — such as Nixon’s trip to China in 1972 — if he thought that elites would unite behind him. But these days it is harder to take such risks, because unity has become so rare. China is a case in point. A relatively cohesive body of pro-engagement elites has given way to the competing agendas of business leaders, human rights activists, Tibet sympathizers, and environmentalists, all of whom complicate the administration’s China policy.

Furthermore, as a result of elite infighting, U.S. foreign policy is seldom consistent. No single point of view is likely to prevail in all branches of the United States’ divided government. Environmental internationalists may win the battle to influence the administration’s position on global warming only to find that business internationalists have won Congress’s ear, making Senate ratification of the Kyoto treaty impossible. Human rights groups may succeed in persuading the Massachusetts state government to impose sanctions on businesses dealing with Burma only to have those measures struck down by a Supreme Court ruling. The U.S. habit of writing international rules and then opting out of them reflects this endless competition over policy. The administration wants to ratify the comprehensive test ban, pay the United States’ U.N. dues, and be a good member of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. But Congress and its attendant lobbies are constantly sniping at these policies, undermining the president’s best efforts to pursue a coherent foreign policy.

This sniping explains the common perception that post–Cold War foreign policy lacks coherence. Yet, as we have seen, a remarkable consensus exists among presidents and presidential aspirants, and this set of values (enthusiastic on trade, supportive of multilateral organizations, measured on trade-offs between human rights, export promotion, and other objectives) roughly reflects the views of the old elites that dominated foreign-policy thinking when the first Chicago polls were taken. But these days the consensus among presidential advisors and the old elites is constantly challenged by new interlopers. These Internet-enabled, lobby-group elites, for all their internationalist intent, are sapping the energy of the presidency — the very institution that has traditionally turned the United States toward internationalism.

It is ironic, too, that this shift is happening at a time when the rest of the world is growing more internationalist, and for strangely overlapping reasons. Because power is not so divided in other countries, single-issue internationalists have fewer opportunities to fragment policy. Because other countries cannot match the United States’ might, they feel more constrained to live within the rules that the single-issue groups are helping to create on land mines, international criminal law, and so on. As a result, globalization is pushing most of the world to cede sovereignty to international regulatory regimes. But in the United States, globalization is having the opposite effect. It is increasing the natural gridlock of the U.S. government, forcing the president to spend more time bargaining with domestic pressure groups and less time working with the nation’s foreign partners. No matter who wins in November, the next president is almost certainly doomed to preside over a feeble, inconsistent foreign policy and a period of continued friction with U.S. allies.

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