Neo-Isolationists Grasp the Congressional Reins

November 17, 1994|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris.--With Republicans in control of the U.S. Congress, the Western alliance's drift into disunion is speeded up. At best we are on our way toward weaker and more selective forms of cooperation between Washington and its old partners.

American foreign policy has already changed with respect to Bosnia, and other changes will follow. The country's fundamental interests have not changed, but the new American congressional majority sees the world in its own way, which is not that of the Clinton administration, nor that of America's allies.

The Clinton administration has had a coherent foreign policy position but not a very serious one. It is based in what Mr. Clinton describes as ''strategic optimism,'' an outlook shared with George Bush, and fundamentally a sentimental version of dialectical materialism.

As Mr. Clinton's friend and adviser, Strobe Talbott -- the deputy secretary of state -- recently put it in a lecture at Oxford University: As it was ''the triumph of democracy and markets that has brought us victory in the Cold War, it must be, above all, the defense of democracy and markets that should guide us now.''

To this one must reply that while the Cold War saw market economies and the democracies succeed, and the state-directed economies and Marxist ''socialist'' governments fail, the connection between that success and those failures was not as clear-cut as Mr. Talbott suggests.

Similarly, while one wishes success to Russian reform today, ''strategic optimism'' about that country's present prospect is not a prudent basis for American policy. Nor is optimism evidently justified in appraising the future of China, the Islamic world or Africa. While the ''defense'' of democracy and market economies is a good thing, prudent foreign policy should not be constructed on a belief that these necessarily will triumph over competing ideologies and interests.

Whatever criticism may be made of the Clinton administration's policy, however, it was the product of thought and was consistent. The Republican leadership, having been the congressional opposition for four decades, has no systematic policy concept nor even a single vision of foreign relations.

There are, nonetheless, certain shared foreign-policy views among the new congressional leaders, mainly nationalistic and ''unilateralist'' in quality, together with a fairly limited interest in what goes on outside the United States, except where American interests are directly implicated. (Bosnia is an exception to this because of the moral issues posed by the Yugoslav war.) In these respects, the Republicans are undoubtedly closer to the American majority than the Democrats have been.

There is hostility to the United Nations. The Clinton administration, at least in the beginning, made much of the possibilities for multilateral international action through the United Nations, following the precedent set by George Bush in the Persian Gulf War. The new Republican congressional majority promises ''no U.S. troops under U.N. command.'' It will demand that Congress specifically approve each U.S. contribution of troops or funds to a U.N. peace-keeping mission. It is likely to be more hostile than ever to military interventions involving any risk of casualties. Pressure already has increased for return of the forces in Haiti.

The expected new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jesse Helms of North Carolina, thinks the United States has spent ''$2 trillion of the American taxpayers' money'' on foreign aid to countries ''that consistently oppose us in the United Nations.'' He describes the United Nations itself as ''that longtime nemesis of millions of Americans.''

Congressional pressure will increase for the United States to break ranks with its European allies on Bosnia. The first step has already been taken, with Mr. Clinton terminating U.S. enforcement of the U.N. arms embargo on Bosnia. However, the Bosnian government (and the Bosnian Serbs as well) would be greatly mistaken to see in this any promise of active U.S. intervention in their war.

The elections have also strengthened American economic nationalism. Democrats with trade-union links in the past opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement and various rounds of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, arguing that they threatened wage and living standards in the United States. The Republican majority today includes many who favor free trade in principle but in practice believe that American interests must prevail in trade disputes, even if this means unilateral trade restrictions or reprisals against foreign countries.

Congressional approval this year for the pending GATT treaty is more doubtful than before, and more difficulties can be expected in future American trade relations with Japan and the European Union.

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