Does the U.S. Still Have a Foreign Policy?

WILLIAM PFAFF

June 21, 1993|By WILLIAM PFAFF

Paris. -- There is a persistent demand to know what is the Clinton administration's foreign policy. This readily becomes another question: Is there a Clinton administration foreign policy?

There is an aggressive trade policy. As for foreign policy, one exists -- but by default. The administration's foreign policy is being shaped by the unconscious factors that have always dominated American relations with the rest of the world.

American policy has always reflected the contest between a universalizing idealism connected with the Puritan origins of the nation, as the secular realization of God's kingdom, and a related desire to withdraw from a corrupted and corrupting world into the security of national self-sufficiency on a isolated continent.

The only times Americans have emerged from national isolation -- and the mentality of isolationism -- have been when the country seemed threatened in one or both of these respects, either its physical security in jeopardy, or its sense of national moral primacy and mission defied. From the 1950s to the 1980s it seemed menaced on both counts.

The first departure from isolation was in 1898, under the influence of the imperial enthusiasms and Social Darwinism of the period, and the country's domestic Protestant progressivism. Cubans -- 90 miles from Miami -- were struggling to throw off Catholic and reactionary Spain's imperialism, so it proved both opportune and morally satisfying to take Cuba over, and Puerto Rico and the Philippines as well, all in the cause of progress, uplift and manifest destiny.

It happened again in 1916, but only after a considerable and successful effort (by the British propaganda services, among others) to identify the Kaiser and German militarism with evil. That double descendant of Presbyterian ministers, Woodrow Wilson, became convinced that the United States could win the war to end wars and provide the world with a new order; but popular enthusiasm for this rapidly waned.

It happened in 1941, because the United States was attacked by Japan. Without that, an unanswerable question remains as to whether the United States would have gone to war against Hitler. Probably it would have, eventually, for essentially the reasons of 1916, Hitler being a truly demonic figure rather than an invented one.

It happened finally in 1948-50 because the Russian army occupied Central Europe and threatened America's wartime allies in Western Europe, posed a nuclear threat, and because Bolshevism was above all a moral challenge to the United States, since it made a rival claim to embody the future of mankind.

So much for history. Today there is no physical threat to the security of the United States. Such threat as exists is to the country's economic well-being and comes from allies, Japan and Western Europe. (This is responsible for the tendency of certain American commentators and politicians to recast the Japanese and the "fortress" Europeans as actual enemies.)

There is no great idealistic motivation today for international involvement. American feelings are rightly but ephemerally engaged by human suffering in Somalia, Ethiopia or Bosnia, but these are affairs whose causes are indigenous and seemingly beyond the ability of others to much influence. There certainly is no great crusading answer to African misery and anarchy or to Balkan hatreds.

The Clinton administration maintains and manages the international obligations already in place, with a bias toward their reduction. Budget and risk-assessment both dictate the run-down of overseas bases and foreign commitments. The administration offers an increased emphasis on human rights and environmental issues as its distinct contribution to foreign policy, but this usually yields when it meets practical obstacles, as in Mr. Clinton's decision not to withdraw most-favored-nation trade status from China because of its human rights abuses.

The administration seems more interested in Russia and the other Soviet successor states and China than in what happens elsewhere. This is rationalized in terms of their nuclear missiles and sheer size and populations, suggesting greater future geopolitical importance, but it also reflects a certain nostalgia among American policymakers (frankly expressed by the last administration's leaders) for the certainties and simplicities of the Cold War.

Disorder in Europe is considered the problem of the West European powers. NATO is taken for granted, but excites little interest. It seems unlikely that this administration would undertake any serious new initiatives in Asia, even if there were new conflicts there. The United States will play a cooperative role alongside its allies and would like this to be thought the leader's role. But as Washington will not pay a serious price, either in men or money, in order to lead, this is a convention that will endure only so long as the allied governments find it convenient.

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