A Lawyer's Foreign Policy

RICHARD REEVES

September 30, 1993|By RICHARD REEVES

LOS ANGELES. — Los Angeles -- It was a little uncomfortable watching President Clinton make his first speech to the United Nations -- not because of what he said, but because he seemed so uncomfortable. Obviously he would rather talk about health care; Lord knows he does that better.

This is a domestic president. Most of the rest since Roosevelt have been foreign-policy presidents. Many of them -- George Bush and John Kennedy, for example -- were bored by most domestic concerns. Probably the rise of an American leader like Mr. Clinton was inevitable with the end of war and Cold War.

I liked most of his sentences and instincts; it was only after the speech was over that my disappointment set in. Perhaps I expected too much from a fresh and new look at the world, but there was no new foreign policy in this speech. There was, in fact, no foreign policy at all.

There is trouble ahead. It was a speech distorted by contradiction. The U.S., our leader said, is ever concerned about the proliferation of weapons but never concerned about selling them -- in fact, we have always been for non-proliferation of nuclear weapons to all countries but one, the United States, a policy some other countries suspected had a certain self-interest attached.

We are on no crusade to force our way of life on others, Mr. Clinton said, so long as other peoples live in free-market democracies like ours. We want, he said, the United Nations to have greater independent military capability to manage peacekeeping missions, as long as we approve of them first.

The contradictions were caught the morning after in the lead headline of the Los Angeles Times: ''Clinton Tells U.N. U.S. Will Lead but Will Limit Its Role.''

Oh, I get it. Limited leadership -- the kind we have been exercising in Bosnia. The kind the president exercises as he backs away from his earlier declarations of support for an independent U.N. military capacity. The kind we are showing by our determination to keep troops in Europe for no reason anyone can explain, or by trying to have it both ways on trade and human rights in China.

The boldest step the president has taken ideologically is into the murky waters of free-market democracy, the right-wing idea that capitalism and democracy are indivisible. The phrase describes something like the U.S. attitude toward Latin American for most of this century: The democracy part was usually the expendable adjunct to market considerations. Often, we preferred free-market dictatorship to such dread hybrids as social democracy or, perish the thought, socialist democracy.

Mr. Clinton's inattention to foreign affairs may have something to do with his adoption of free-market democracy. There is something of a joke about the concept, since we learned long ago about the downside of ''free'' -- i.e., unregulated -- in free-wheeling capitalism. We ourselves would never stand for the kind of unregulated and unchecked free-market systems we began urging on the Soviet Union and other post-communist systems during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. The benefits and cruelties of capitalism have to be checked and balanced -- which is an ongoing responsibility of the American experiment.

American foreign policy, pre-Clinton, has traditionally been a balance and struggle between ''idealists'' (Woodrow Wilson, Henry Stimson, Cyrus Vance) and ''realists'' (Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger). A Kissinger biographer, Walter Isaacson, was asked during a lecture this summer to say in which camp he would place Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

''Neither,'' he answered. ''Christopher is a lawyer; he works case by case.''

And President Clinton's maiden U.N. speech was a lawyer's speech. He does not seem to know what he thinks about foreign affairs until he knows who will be his next client.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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