President says U.S. 'must act now' to preserve democracy in Russia

April 02, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau

ANNAPOLIS -- In a speech short on specifics, but full of soaring imagery, President Clinton told the American people yesterday that vision -- "not fear" -- must guide the United States to play a historic role in helping Russia build a free market democracy.

"We must act now," the president said. "Not out of charity. But because it is an investment in our own future. While our efforts will entail new costs, we can reap even larger dividends for our safety and prosperity."

Speaking at a luncheon of the American Society of Newspaper Editors on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Academy, Mr. Clinton, in the most comprehensive foreign policy speech of his new presidency, added, "This struggle to build free societies is one of the great human dramas of our day."

"It presents the greatest security challenge for our generation," the president added. "It offers one of the greatest economic opportunities of our lifetime. That is why my first trip out of the country will be to Vancouver, Canada, to meet with President Yeltsin."

The president did not delve into the details of the aid package he is expected to offer President Boris N. Yeltsin tomorrow and Sunday. And though he cited the vision of Gen. George C. Marshall, the architect of the wholesale U.S. aid to post-World War II Europe, Mr. Clinton seemed to be outlining a vastly less ambitious program that is almost retail in nature.

Saying that he does not believe government-to-government assistance is the way to go, Mr. Clinton instead invoked the image of thousands upon thousands of American farmers, retired business executives, entrepreneurs traversing the vast Russian landscape, sharing their expertise.

The president also mentioned the possibility of thousands of young Russian professionals coming to the United States for training.

This approach received good reviews on Capitol Hill yesterday, where Mr. Clinton met with congressional leaders before traveling to Annapolis.

But the activities he discussed are precisely the kinds already occurring daily between the two nations, and it remains to be seen whether such minimalist approach will encourage the beleaguered Russian reformers, no matter how warm and evocative Mr. Clinton's words sounded.

Playing the role of history teacher, Mr. Clinton recounted the bloody sacrifices Russians have paid for their independence in this century.

He said a little prayer that the revolution that broke up the Soviet Union will remain peaceful. And he predicted that the now-troubled Russian economy could rise and become a great power as did the postwar economies of Germany, Japan and South Korea.

But Mr. Clinton also acknowledged that helping residents of a faraway land is not at the top of most Americans' lists of urgent national priorities.

"For most Americans, these events, while dramatic are remote from their immediate concerns," he said.

"We've got our problems and needs. We face a stagnant economy and the dislocations brought about by the end of the Cold War and downsizing our military budget. We're worried about our cities. . . . We've got budget deficits. Why should we help a distant people when times are hard at home?"

The president then proceeded to answer this question: Helping Russia and the other former republics of the Soviet Union to rebuild can put American know-how to work; eventually these countries will be lucrative markets with nearly 300 million potential customers; a peaceful Russia means smaller defense budgets in the United States; finally, a democratic Russia

creates a safer world.

"In particular," Mr. Clinton said, "democracies are far less likely to wage war on other nations than dictatorships are."

The setting for Mr. Clinton's address was the ornate and cavernous Dahlgren Hall at the Naval Academy. But if the president was coming to the heart of an institution -- the U.S. Navy -- that has grave doubts about him, the audience he chose was a powerful and potentially sympathetic constituency.

In addressing the American Society of Newspaper Editors' annual convention, Mr. Clinton was talking to a group of men and women with the means to ensure that Mr. Clinton's vision for U.S.-Russian relations is given vast circulation.

If the primary goal of yesterday's speech was to begin the process of building a constituency for Russian aid at home, Mr. Clinton also was aware his speech was being monitored in Russia, where many ordinary people are growing weary of vague promises from the West.

"Let me here address directly the Russian people who will read or hear my words," the president said.

"You are a people who understand patriotic struggle. You have persevered through an unforgiving climate. Your whole history has been punctuated by suffering on a scale unknown to the American people. . . . And now, as you seek to build a great tomorrow for Russia upon a foundation of democracy and commerce, I speak for Americans everywhere when I say we are with you."

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