The Man Who Would Please All

September 01, 1994|By WILLIAM PFAFF

Paris -- Power lies in reputation, and American power is in decline because the nation's reputation is in decline. Commentators tend to blame this on the Clinton administration for its inconsistencies, but there is more to it.

The Sunday Telegraph in London has always been the newspaper of traditional British conservatism. One of its commentators, John Casey, has just published a criticism of the Clinton administration's Cuban policy that becomes a vitriolic attack on American conduct toward the Caribbean and Latin America since the time, 40 years ago, when Cuba ''was a client state of the Americans and a world center of crime.''

In Haiti and Cuba Mr. Casey now foresees the United States imposing ''a misshapen creature,'' its ''New World Order,'' the product of an American imperialism that, unlike the imperialism of the past, or even of the Soviet Union, refuses ''to take real responsibility for [its] subject nations.''

A similar charge has just been made in France in the influential and conservative Figaro magazine. A recent article suggested that the United States sponsors the Ugandan-based (and English-speaking) Tutsi army that seized control of Rwanda last month, intending to drive French influence from Africa and substitute its own. This accusation has since been echoed in Le Monde, the most important French daily.

Despite the implausibility of the notion that after Somalia the Clinton administration wants anything more to do with Africa, these accusations express a cultural hostility that is by no means confined to the French right. It is a hostility that would not have been expressed in the same way in the past, when America's dynamism and evident sense of purpose seemed to justify its ''imperialism.''

Perhaps the most prominent of Britain's conservative commentators, Peregrine Worsthorne, wrote recently that despite his liking for Americans and his past championing of the United States against a leftist anti-Americanism, he now has concluded that the United States is a dangerously failing society and a bad influence on Britain.

He suggests that Britain give up its slavish imitation of American ideas and look to Asia for a new model of how economic progress can be combined with social stability and conservative values.

This in part is provocation; it is absurd to think of Japanese or Singaporean social models transferred to modern Britain. Behind the advice, however, is a very significant shift in the perceptions of someone who, during the Thatcher-Reagan years, was an extravagant admirer of the United States.

No American today needs to be told that the U.S. is in a serious social crisis rooted in racial tensions and the situation of the American family. The decline in the country's foreign reputation is a consequence of its failure to deal with problems that are, in part, those of modern society itself, but, in important respects, also are problems of its own creation. There certainly is no excuse, for example, for the fact that the U.S., alone among all the Western nations, not only has no program of universal health care, but when it attempts to legislate one is prevented from doing so by self-interested lobbies and factional conflict.

The element of hypocrisy in American foreign policy is an old story, and hypocrisy in any case is no American monopoly. What is new is that the United States no longer gives the impression to others that its foreign policy reflects a coherent conception of American and allied interests.

Mr. Clinton must be held accountable. He has tried to do what he thinks the public wants, deaf to the reality that in international affairs the public does not specifically know what it wants, and that presidential leadership consists in telling the public what the nation needs and should want.

His flagrant reversals of American policy on Cuba were caused by his (doomed) wish to satisfy contradictory pressures from Florida interest groups. His Haiti reversals were driven by pressure groups. His administration's abject abandonment of human-rights considerations in dealing with China, confirmed by Commerce Secretary Ron Brown in Beijing Monday, suggests that, for Washington, the only ''outlaw nations'' are those in whom American business has no current trade interest.

Mr. Clinton earned respect for the United States when he assumed office because he seemed determined to deal with the country's internal problems. His neglect of foreign affairs was forgiven by America's allies. Now the respect is gone, and the American crisis seems to the allies endemic, and perhaps insolvable.

Mr. Clinton can be blamed in that when he became president he held the possibility of American change in his hands. To succeed, he had to impose his own convictions, at the cost of displeasing others. But the need to please seems not only a part of his own character, but a disabling characteristic of the modern presidential institution itself -- another element in the American crisis.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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