Foreign Policy President

November 08, 1992

In his first days as president-elect, Gov. Bill Clinton has been witness to the first shots in a menacing trade war between the United States and the European Community, Serbia's defiance of a United Nations ban on flights over Bosnian territory and Iraq's Saddam Hussein firing his pistol in the air to celebrate George Bush's defeat.

He also has seen the recall of the U.S. ambassador to Burkina Faso because it has aided Liberian rebels who killed five American nuns, Jordanian King Hussein's announcement that he has cancer, Japan's decision to steal a march on the U.S. by expanding economic ties with Vietnam and efforts by Salvadoran militarists to stall a purge of hard-liners while Washington is distracted.

These fairly routine developments on a tumultuous world scene should warn Mr. Clinton that though he wishes to "focus like a laser" on the domestic economy, international developments never take time off from the presidential agenda. When he raises his right hand in January, there could be political crisis in Moscow, starvation in Yugoslavia, a Mariel-size boatlift exodus from Haiti and half-a dozen other problems now unforeseen.

Foreign leaders and foreign markets always get nervous when there is a changing of the guard at the White House. What happens in Washington is domestic news the world over. The president-elect might want to deal with international affairs only as they affect the economic situation, but events won't let him. The Japanese fear the Democrats are protectionist. China's aging leaders won't soon forget that Mr. Clinton called them "tyrants." Russian President Boris Yeltsin may be smarting by the president-elect's dismissal of their first telephone conversation as unsubstantial.

The domestic emphasis in the 1992 campaign may have created some false impressions. No president, whoever he is, can attack domestic doldrums without worrying about the impact of his policies abroad. If foreign bond holders get the idea, for example, that deficit-reduction is being postponed or inflation is coming back, they could dump U.S. holdings and push up TC interest rates here.

Trade issues will be constantly on the president's desk. Early on, Mr. Clinton may have to decide whether a second shot in the trans-Atlantic dispute or getting tough with Japan and China would help or hurt chances for all-important worldwide trade reform under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). At stake is a potential $200 billion increase in global output.

Defense policy also will intrude on domestic preoccupations. The pace of U.S. troop withdrawals from Europe will not only affect NATO's ability to respond to a potentially dangerous Communist resurgence in Russia but the ability of the U.S. job market to absorb returning service personnel. Energy policy will inevitably be reflected in U.S. Mideast policies. Immigration policy will be intertwined with a looming fight over ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which itself is a form of defense against a Europe trying to distance itself from the United States.

So Mr. Clinton will be a "foreign policy president" whether he wishes or not. This is the fate of every president. We suspect -- and hope -- he is better prepared than campaign jousting would suggest.

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