A Policy of Aspirations

June 06, 1994|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris.--President Clinton will not improve his own or his country's standing by giving speeches during this European trip on the old and platitudinous subjects of allied solidarity. Nor is it a good sign that the president thinks his foreign-policy difficulties are to be solved by ''doing a better job of communicating.''

It surely is obvious to anyone not part of Mr. Clinton's inner circle that the administration's problem is one of bad policy or lack of policy, not presentation. A series of fiascoes has occurred -- Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, China, North Korea. In each of these some American intervention or action was proposed for essentially moral reasons, resonant with the large and traditional American commitment to make a better world for everyone.

Tangible American interests, however, dictated non-intervention or non-action. The administration considered its possibilities, insistently discussed them in public, warred over them in private, even promised action, and then reversed itself because of the practical considerations that had been evident from the start.

In each case it then sought a formula of words that could make inaction seem a higher or more effective form of action: Trade would make China democratic. Embargo would make the generals quit in Haiti. Peace in Yugoslavia would be advanced by barring arms for the Bosnians. The administration's supposed communications problem is simply that its own confusion has been communicated to the public.

Mr. Clinton wants -- obviously; who does not? -- to do good, bring freedom to the oppressed, advance democracy, bestow upon others the mixed blessings of the marketplace. We know all that. But what is it that the Clinton administration can actually expect to achieve? What is the American public willing to pay for? What economic or military cost is the administration itself prepared to pay to have what it says it wants?

The administration seems to consider policy a matter of fixing grand aspirations and then conducting a lengthy and usually inconclusive dialogue with the press on what might or might not be the best way of going about what it wants. It seems not to grasp that policy must concern those tangible goals possible to achieve within the limits of the American public's willingness to make sacrifices. The public today is hostile to military actions that involve a risk of casualties and is reluctant to spend money on foreign affairs.

Americans are concerned with the country's domestic problems, they should be: with jobs, the economy, health-care reform, race. The country's university and press intelligentsia is distracted by another of the periodic national seizures of puritanism, this time concerning thought and expression on matters of race and the relations of the sexes.

NTC I have a modest proposal. Why doesn't Mr. Clinton tell the truth about all this?

Why doesn't he tell the Europeans that the United States today is in a necessary, or at least inevitable, period of preoccupation with internal problems? It has a big crisis in race relations and is deeply divided on important moral and so-called cultural issues.

It still has no unity of outlook on international policy. It lost that in Vietnam. The veterans of the Normandy beachhead, returning over the weekend, are soldiers from another America, who fought in a war waged in another moral climate.

Mr. Clinton could say that the end of the Cold War has seemed to offer Americans some space and time to work through these problems. The U.S. had willingly carried the biggest burden in the defense of democracy during the Cold War, but the Cold War is over. Americans recognize that Russia's future is uncertain and risky, and that there are plenty of new problems in the world -- some of them desperate ones. But they also ask why Washington must solve them all. Certain of them affect Europe far more than they do the United States.

The problems of Yugoslavia and Eastern Europe, and even those of Africa and North Africa, are certainly more Europe's than America's. Americans understand that Europe tried to act in Yugoslavia and fell into confusion and disagreement. It nonetheless seems to many unreasonable that Europeans do not take more international responsibility than currently is the case.

The president could conclude by emphasizing that Western Europe now is composed of rich and mature nations. It has created for itself an entirely new kind of international association, the European Union. Its nations have an intimacy and also a collective ambition that never existed before. The time surely has come for its governments to assume responsibilities that properly belong to them. This would be in their interest, and it is also in the interest of the United States today.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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