The Foreign Unpolicy


July 13, 1993|By JOHN B. JUDIS

It's become accepted wisdom that Bill Clinton isn't interested in foreign affairs and doesn't have a foreign policy. The truth is, however, that a distinctively Clintonian foreign policy has emerged.

In his stance toward Western Europe and Bosnia, Japan and China, Mr. Clinton has revealed the contours of a new diplomacy -- a repudiation not only of the Bush administration's approach, but of American foreign policy since the beginning of World War II.

Here are four of the most important principles and how Mr. Clinton has stood them on their head.

* The subordination of economic to foreign policy: During World War II and the Cold War, the United States put the containment of Soviet-led communism and the creation of a stable world economic order ahead of immediate national economic interests. It tolerated asymmetrical trade and investment restrictions in Europe and Asia and encouraged American companies to license their technology to potential competitors in Japan. Until 1971 the U.S. also permitted Europe and Japan to undervalue their currencies in relation to the dollar. The loss of short-term profits, it was thought, would be more than offset by an industrially viable Western Europe and East Asia bound together with the United States in a global economic and military alliance.

This approach made sense because the United States commanded a disproportionate share of the world's GNP -- 50 percent in the late '40s -- and needed viable trading partners. By the early '70s, however, Japan and Western Europe had become fierce competitors. Under President Nixon and Treasury Secretary John Connally, the United States began to be more assertive about its economic interests.

But as long as the Soviet threat loomed, the government was still inclined to give precedence to security concerns. President Bush himself adhered to this definition of U.S. security. Only under political pressure in his last year in office did he begin to waver. His January 1992 trip to Japan was first intended to review the U.S.-Japan security relationship but ended up being a lobbying excursion for U.S. automakers.

In contrast, President Clinton has placed short-term American economic interests ahead of any broader issues of foreign policy. In Asia, trade has taken precedence over security. Relations with Europe have been dominated by economic concerns. After the Bosnian Serbs rejected a peace plan last May, the president lamented, ''I felt really badly because I don't want to have to spend more time on [Bosnia] than is absolutely necessary, because what I got elected to do was to get Americans to look at our own problems.''

* International security as indivisible: During the first part of the 20th century, most nations conducted foreign policy and economic relations on a piecemeal, bilateral basis. But the Great Depression and World War II convinced the United States to change its approach. After World War II the government promoted the idea that the nations of Western Europe and Japan were part of an integrated trading and security system in which a threat to one part was a threat to the whole.

The new security system was overtly justified by the Soviet threat, but its purpose went beyond that of containing communism. The United States was as worried about the emergence of rival trading blocs in Europe and Asia as it was about Soviet troops crossing the Rhine. Some took this concept of indivisibility to extremes, seeing every minor conflict as a struggle between the free world and communism, between free trade and protectionism; Mr. Bush himself invoked indivisibility in justifying U.S. intervention in Kuwait.

But in Bosnia President Clinton has repudiated this concept. He has treated it as a regional conflict that should be resolved, if at all, by the European powers. It is a conflict, Under Secretary of State Peter Tarnoff explained, in which ''other regional players have a great stake'' and should make ''the very hard decisions on the commitment of men and women and resources.''

Mr. Clinton's position assumes the division of the world into semi-autonomous regions in which each region's ''players'' are responsible for maintaining order. With the Cold War over, Mr. Clinton evidently believes the United States can return to its 19th-century strategy of picking and choosing among conflicts.

* The great-power basis of multilateralism: As World War II drew to a close, Franklin Roosevelt promoted the idea of a new international order that would be organized by the ''four policemen'' -- the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union and China -- acting as the executive committee of a new United Nations. He rejected schemes for a new supra national U.N. in which the nations of the world, voting equally, would have an air force at their disposal to settle conflicts.

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