Clinton foreign policy appears to retreat from decades of U.S. world leadership

May 27, 1993|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- In a departure from decades of projecting U.S. power around the globe, President Clinton has adopted a foreign policy that requires other countries to share leadership and military burdens and reserves U.S. might for threats to narrowly defined interests.

This change, which has emerged clearly in policy toward the Balkans, has shaken up relations between the United States and traditional allies long accustomed to American dominance.

And it has allowed a newly democratic Russia to emerge as a major diplomatic force instead of a military menace.

"We can't do it all," Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher said in a television interview this week, summing up the Clinton administration's doctrine for the post-Cold War world.

The new stance was delineated for the first time by Peter Tarnoff, the under secretary of state for political affairs, at lunch Tuesday with about 50 reporters. His comments triggered a furious State Department and White House damage-control effort, with spokesmen insisting that they didn't reflect U.S. policy. Mr. Tarnoff spoke on condition that he not be identified, but he was subsequently named by the New York Times.

Mr. Christopher, already under fire for excessive caution, stressed in an appearance yesterday that "the need for American leadership" remains undiminished.

But these disclaimers seemed directed mostly at what one White House aide yesterday referred to as the "malaise" in the senior official's tone.

In substance, the State Department official's comments differed little from what Mr. Christopher himself said on ABC's "Nightline" program Tuesday night.

Citing Balkan policy as a model for how the United States will approach similar crises involving potential force, Mr. Tarnoff said each will be taken "case by case."

The United States will limit the extent of its involvement to "what we think is appropriate" and not "take over" if other nations have a major stake, he said.

Allies having trouble with this policy must recognize that the United States needs to focus on its domestic economy and has difficulty finding even small amounts of money to bolster foreign-policy interests, Mr. Tarnoff said.

Mr. Christopher said on the "Nightline" program that the United States needs to husband its power. "If we were really threatened by something, if our national interest were at stake -- for example, if someone was invading us -- of course we'd act alone."

But, he said, the United States must "save our power for those situations which threaten our deepest national interest, at the same time doing all we can where there's humanitarian concern."

He referred to Bosnia as "a humanitarian crisis a long ways from home, in the middle of another continent" and said, "Our actions here are proportionate to what our responsibilities are in that situation."

The Clinton administration has reluctantly endorsed a European-Russian policy of creating safety zones for the Bosnian Muslims, though U.S. planes would be used to guard them.

This limited involvement departs sharply from U.S. policy since the 1950s, when the United States shouldered the free world's military and financial commitment. They also mark a shift from the leadership the United States showed before and during the Persian Gulf war.

The emerging doctrine signals at least a partial withdrawal from the job of protecting Europe. While retaining leadership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the administration is making clear that problems of the continent's own making are up to Europe to solve.

And it appears to limit how far the United States will go in pushing its agenda of human rights, democracy and curbing the spread of dangerous weapons.

Mr. Clinton gave little hint of this retreat during his election campaign, when he sharply criticized George Bush's inaction in the face of Serbian atrocities in Bosnia and articulated a forceful internationalist policy that promoted U.S. values.

Citing new tests of U.S. leadership in a speech in August, Mr. Clinton said a president must "assert a vision of our role in this dynamic new world" and then "summon all our strengths -- our values, our economic power, when necessary our military might -- in service of that vision."

The diminished U.S. role in Europe is producing uneasiness. "There's been some concern that we would disengage," said Jack Seymour, who directs a U.S.-European relations project at the Atlantic Council. "But at least until now I thought we were trying to tell Europeans we would be engaged."

Sensing an American pullback, France has raised its own profile, adopting a more assertive posture in military affairs, particularly in Bosnia. So has Russia, which had previously been a largely symbolic diplomatic partner in the Middle East.

The reduced U.S. role heightens the importance of the United Nations in filling the power void.

But Mr. Tarnoff acknowledged that that international system is already "overloaded," unable to cope with the complexity, volume and cost of current world problems.

John Steinbruner, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, said the role the Clinton administration describes can't be sustained:

"Guess again, friend. You're going to be held to a higher standard than that. If you haven't figured that out yet, you're in trouble. To say we're just another country hanging around and can responsibly avoid leadership is missing the point," he said.

Acknowledging that new international arrangements must be found to tackle world problems, he said the United States "cannot avoid responsibility for a major effort to bring [them] about."

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