Pragmatism vs. Idealism: Clinton Could Bring Shift

December 13, 1992|By FRANK BURD

Surprisingly, the American democracy, so inexperienced in foreign affairs and profoundly isolationist for 150 years, was able to construct a coherent policy of resistance to Soviet international communism and to carry it out for almost five decades, covering nine different administrations.

Even more surprising was that the policy not only achieved its objective of forcing the expansionist Soviet Union to turn inward and become a status quo power, thus stabilizing the international order. Eventually, far behind imagined results, it led to:

* the disintegration of the Soviet Union;

* the collapse of a Russian empire three hundreds years in its building;

* the withering of international communism;

* the embarrassment of Marxism, which was for many the century's most powerful intellectual force; and

* the discrediting of the Soviet Union's monumental experience with a regime of authoritarianism, state ownership and centralized planning.

Now, the world map has changed. The ideological climate has changed. The world's power structure has changed. It is now a unipolar world in which, for a decade or more, the United States is the pre-eminent political power. While no nation alone can bring about global order, only the United States has the diplomatic authority and prestige, the military reach and underlying economic strength to provide international political leadership.

Ironically, in this critical period of global change, at this moment of American preeminence and unique responsibility, the United States is in danger of becoming disoriented. The American consensus for international leadership has lost its most obvious and compelling justification -- resisting Soviet expansionism and international communism. During the long presidential campaign, the nation has acted as if foreign policy were no longer important.

Clearly, however, the end of the Soviet threat did not end history. It did not end America's international economic interests. It did not end all threats to American security. Nor did it end America's current obligation to itself and others to provide international political leadership.

The United States needs a post-Cold War policy architecture which has the coherence and comprehensiveness of that which was created during the Truman administration. The national discussion of post-Cold War policy has begun; and President Bush, not insensitive to new possibilities for diplomacy and international cooperation, has been forging a set of policies designed to help create stability in regions around the world. Now, in this early stage of the process, responsibility passes to the administration of President-elect Bill Clinton.

In the rhetoric of Mr. Clinton's four major speeches on foreign policy, there is an enormous difference between his approach fTC and that of the consensus of the past fifty years. Mr. Clinton is an idealist and the consensus has been realist.

There was an intense debate during the Truman years over idealism vs. realism, which was resolved in favor of realism. Idealist currents are inherent in the American tradition. They have been present in opposition causes throughout the Cold War era and are at the heart of human rights policies. Unless Mr. Clinton takes a turn to pragmatism on his own, we could be on the eve of another such idealism-realism debate.

Mr. Clinton has taken direct aim at the realist position. He has consistently denigrated stability, which in the realist conception is a moral end. Also, he has asserted that power politics and balance-of-power strategies do not "compute." He has minimized the role of realist foreign policy in the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The realist conceptual framework centers on the axiom that nations pursue their self-interests through power. The resulting condition of competition and conflict is stabilized by an order composed of balances of power, institutions embodying these balances and diplomacy to create and maintain the order. Nations outside of the order are brought in through classic diplomacy and accommodation.

Mr. Clinton's "pro-democracy" foreign policy has a theoretical framework quite different from that of realism. This age, he claims, is governed by an historical movement, an inexorable march toward democracy, the outcome of which will determine the nature of the 21st century. Its dynamic is the power of ideas given global reach by modern communications. The proof of the power of this movement lies in his view that it was the spirit of democracy and freedom which swept communism aside.

He envisions a "global democracy," an order which would be stable and prosperous, because democracies do not go to war, but rather trade reliably and abide by international law. In the service of this vision, the United States should devote energies, comparable to those of the Cold War, to advocating and encouraging democracy.

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