Clinton, Baker are singing same tune on foreign policy

April 22, 1992|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The election-year foreign policy debate is starting to sound more like a duet.

The Bush administration and Democratic front-runner Bill Clinton not only seem to be humming the same tune, they're singing strikingly similar lyrics.

Take Secretary of State James A. Baker III's speech yesterday to the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations.

Laying out the case anew for aid to the former Soviet Union, Mr. Baker said: "We have a once-in-a-century opportunity to shape the course of history and to define a new age of peace. I'm not talking about the 20th century, but the 21st century."

He added: "The stakes are truly historic."

Compare that forward-looking passage with Mr. Clinton's April 1 speech to the Foreign Policy Association in New York: "The stakes are high. The collapse of communism is not an isolated event; it's part of a worldwide march toward democracy whose outcome will shape the next century." Mr. Clinton also said, "I seek not to be the last president of the 20th century, but the first president of the 21st century."

The sameness in themes and even phrases is hardly surprising in a campaign that went through weeks of mutual silence on foreign policy, a silence broken only when President Bush and Mr. Clinton, speaking 20 minutes apart, proclaimed the need for a major Russian aid package.

Both Mr. Clinton and Mr. Baker, who was Mr. Bush's 1988 campaign manager, agree on what the aid package is -- an "investment" in America's future security -- and what it is not -- charity. This is necessary to underscore because, as both said, foreign aid is not popular.

They also agree on the historical context.

Mr. Baker spoke of the revolutionary change in the former Soviet Union as marking America's third "summons to leadership" of this century. The United States ignored the first summons, after World War I, withdrawing into isolationism and protectionism that led to the Great Depression of the 1930s, he said.

After World War II, the United States answered the summons, putting together the Marshall Plan and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and creating a militarily strong and prosperous democratic bulwarkthat won the Cold War.

Citing the same historical experiences in his April 1 speech, Mr. Clinton said, "Now, we face our own moment of great change and enormous opportunity."

Sometimes it's difficult to say who is borrowing from whom.

Mr. Baker appears to have been the first to draw the historical comparisons. In a speech at Princeton University on Dec. 12, three months before Mr. Clinton's, Mr. Baker said, "For the third time this century, we have ended a war -- this time a cold one -- between the great powers."

The Princeton speech actually blazed a trail in arguing not just for aiding the former Soviet Union but for leading other nations toward a common goal.

Mr. Baker dubbed this "collective engagement." Yesterday he elevated the term to be the very basis of Bush administration foreign policy, citing successes in unifying Germany, freeing Eastern Europe, assembling the gulf war allied coalition, launching Mideast peace talks and ending conflicts in Latin America.

"We led, we had partners, and together we succeeded," he said.

Listing these successes in a coherent framework may have been Mr. Baker's answer to Mr. Clinton's blast earlier this month that "the president has failed to articulate clear goals for American foreign policy." Mr. Clinton also said, "If we don't take the lead, no one else can, and no one else will."

New York Times columnist William Safire has noted the similarity between "collective engagement" and Mr. Clinton's idea of having the U.S. lead "a long-term Western strategy of engagement for democracy."

Both make the same case for working through multilateral organizations -- up to a point.

"Of course, the United States reserves the right to act alone, which at times may be the only way to truly lead or serve our national interests," Mr. Baker said yesterday.

Three weeks ago, Mr. Clinton put it this way: "We will never abandon our prerogative to act alone when our vital interests are at stake."

Finally, the two are as one in not wanting history to pass us by.

"We can either try to win this peace through a deliberate policy of working with others to shape our times, or we can stand aside and drift, while the times shape us," Mr. Baker said yesterday.

Or, as Mr. Clinton put it, the choice is one of "whether we will shape a new era or be shaped by it."

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