The Clinton Doctrine

A. M. Rosenthal

October 07, 1992|By A. M. Rosenthal

THE CAMPAIGN of 1992, so long a desert of tedium and cynicism, has finally produced what the country has needed for too many dry years -- a lucid, warm adult statement of principle about what the United States can give to the world, and gain from it.

Of the hundreds of campaign speeches, a talk by Governor Clinton in Milwaukee on Oct. 1 is likely to be remembered longest. It was meant for Americans but will be studied intently in the rest of the world.

If he is elected, the speech will be recalled constantly during his presidency to see if under pressure Mr. Clinton will be strong and faithful to the philosophy he put forward that day.

If he loses, or as president should give way under test, then at least the speech and its doctrine will be remembered as what democratic leadership could have been.

Mr. Clinton spoke of the critical importance to this country of following a policy of democratic realism at home and abroad. He did not use the phrase, but it sums up the beliefs of those who, like Mr. Clinton, understand the moral, political and economic strength of political freedom.

Democratic realism is one of the two competing, internationalist philosophies in the West. The other is realpolitik, which assumes that all that really counts in the world is tangible power and the ability to maneuver with it.

Realpoliticians believe democracy may be nice enough if you have it, but to make democratic interests and values part of international decisions ranges from irrelevance to dangerous sentimentality. The differences between realpolitik and democratic realism can be the difference between war or peace.

Mr. Clinton has spelled out the root beliefs of democratic realism and its value to Americans:

Democracies do not go to war with one another. They do not sponsor international terrorism. They do not threaten to destroy other nations with weapons of mass destruction. Democracy abroad helps protect economic and security interests at home. It makes for more reliable diplomatic and environmental partners than dictatorships.

So, he said, the choice for America is not either/or, as many politicians tell us. Tending to our economy and backing democracy abroad must go together -- the collapse of one could bring down the other.

Once that needed no saying to Americans. In the past half-century, every president managed to deal with the country's economy and foreign policy without whining that he could only handle one at a time.

But Mr. Bush tells us that having been a wild success abroad he now is at last able to devote himself to the economy. Mr. Bush's promise may be unnerving. But at least he is beginning to take a smidgen of the responsibility. That is a good step in character development.

But, as Mr. Clinton pointed out, the Bush foreign record is not thrilling. Time and again, Mr. Bush acted as if he thought the interests of democrats against dictatorships were a plain nuisance.

When the Soviet Union was within a breath of death, he fought to help Mikhail Gorbachev resuscitate it. Mr. Clinton mentioned that and other Bush-Baker triumphs.

Promises broken to Kurds, Baltic independence snubbed. Bosnia. Vetoes of every congressional bill to make communist China pay any economic price for its slave labor camps.

In the Mideast, Bush-Baker accomplished two of the grossest stupidities in American history -- first arming Iraqi President Saddam Hussein so he had to be fought and defeated, then letting him stay in power. Both mistakes were against democratic interests, therefore against American interests.

Initiating the Israeli-Arab peace talks could become a real Bush-Baker accomplishment. But Mr. Clinton made an interesting point -- this administration thinks of the Arab-Israeli conflict as one more quarrel between two religions or nations, rather than a struggle involving the survival of a democratic ally.

So could we hold the negotiation celebrations a moment or two? Just in case we get the chance to see what a second-term Mr. Bush would do about Israel and its neighbors?

Democracy has always been America's "perfecting impulse," said Mr. Clinton, and "now the cynical calculus of pure power politics does not compute." That is essential democratic realism -- and essential country values.

A. M. Rosenthal is a New York Times columnist.

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