The world will not be an adjunct of U.S. politics

November 07, 1996|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- Things fall apart. They were doing so even as the United States voted Tuesday. President Clinton was phenomenally lucky to have the campaign gift of postponed crises in America's foreign relations.

A poisoned gift. The president's second term begins amid impending or actual international disorders with potentially severe consequences. These will not be managed using the intellectual resources displayed during the last four years.

After discarding its initial sentimentality about the irresistible march of democracy, the administration conducted a policy largely dictated by domestic lobbies and American corporate interest. This policy was incoherent and in some respects

counter-productive, but workable because no really large problem was handed Washington during the period, and because America's allies were tolerant.

Now things are becoming serious. Boris Yeltsin came out of the operating room alive Tuesday, but his life expectancy cannot be great, and he is unlikely to be in any condition to reimpose his authority for weeks, even months -- if he will ever be able to do so.

In his absence, a chaotic struggle for power goes on among politico-financial baronies, some in criminal alliances, a process bearing small resemblance to that scenario of rivalry between democrats and outmoded authoritarians, reformers and ''old-think'' Russians, which Washington prefers, and possibly even believes.

Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, addressing the Harriman Institute in New York last week, spoke warmly of the alliance of America with Russia to work ''together to keep changing the world for the better.'' An agreeable dream. We will be lucky to have a stable Russia, at peace.

Crisis with China

China is determined to defy ''Western values,'' as defended by Washington, while demanding the trade and political concessions the administration, and the West, have until now granted. But next year Hong Kong is to be delivered over to this China, and while Hong Kong's acquaintance with democracy is recent and brief, its experience of, and reliance upon, responsible government and the rule of law is a century old. There is going to be a crisis between China and the United States.

Europe is determined to have its ''euro'' -- its single currency -- and this will make serious and not wholly foreseeable difficulties for the dollar and for America's international economic position. U.S. trade unilateralism -- very popular with Congress -- must be expected to continue, corroding European-American (and Japanese-American) relations. Political tensions related to America's international leadership claims will steadily rise.

Benazir Bhutto was overturned on America's election day, meaning that the Afghanistan crisis enters a new stage, and that American policy toward Afghanistan (and indirectly, toward Iran) in check. The State Department now is attempting to dissociate the U.S. from the Taliban movement, which previously was given Washington's indirect support in order to oppose Iranian interests in the Afghanistan region and to secure U.S. commercial access to central Asian oil and natural gas.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process, in which the United States has a heavy investment, has come to a halt, quite possibly terminal. Israel's population is angrily divided, the army command alienated from the Netanyahu government, army service no longer popular. Rumors -- or provocations? -- circulate in Israel forecasting a ''pre-emptive'' attack on Syria, meant to make permanent Israel's control of the Golan Heights and, indirectly, to kill a Palestinian peace process unwelcome to this government. What will the United States do?

The Clinton administration carried out its Bosnian intervention last year under political pressure from Senator Dole, and succeeded in stopping the war -- with help from British, French and Dutch heavy artillery and mortars inside Bosnia, more destructive of Bosnian Serb weaponry and munitions than NATO's bombing.

Discredited fiction

Having stopped the war, the administration perversely renounced the measures agreed in Dayton to secure the peace and encourage political reconstruction. No criminals were arrested. Elections were conducted under totally unsatisfactory conditions. The parties of ethnic extremism now are dominant. The Bosnian-Croatian federation is a discredited fiction.

The U.S. will be expected to prolong its troop presence in Bosnia to deter a return to war. But the opportunity -- limited but important -- that existed to turn Yugoslavia's disintegration into an exemplary lesson in the costs and punishment of ethnic aggression has been abandoned, for reason of U.S. domestic politics. That will make future trouble.

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