A New American Isolationism? the Mood of American Introspection and Fatigue with the Tiresome World Is Growing Fast

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The mood of American introspection and fatigue with the tiresome world is growing fast

THE UNITED STATES IS ENDING THE AMERICAN CENTURY with a striking and ambitious drive to renew and extend the internationalism which has directed its foreign policy since 1941. It is broadening its commitments under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to new allies in eastern Europe while also pledging a new partnership with Russia. It is determined to secure a Middle East peace settlement and to retain its troop deployments and bases in the Pacific to help build a stable and sustainable commercial and security system in Asia. President Bill Clinton and his senior officials, growing comfortable and even familiar with the uses of America's unrivaled military power, appear determined to start the post-cold war period with the same commitment to global strategic and commercial leadership with which the generation of Dean Acheson and General George Marshall launched America's cold war strategy in 1947.

But the Clinton administration also promises to pay the $1.4 billion it is in arrears to the United Nations, as a way to start afresh its long-troubled relations with a world body that has not always proved compliant with American presumptions or American policy. And it is with the problematic fate of the Clinton plan for the United Nations that the real paradox of the Clinton administration's global ambitions becomes manifest. Clinton has secured the support of the Republican speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, and the rather more lukewarm backing of the Republican leader in the Senate, Trent Lott. But this accord between Democratic and Republican leaders has run into trouble, in the person of Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, a highly conservative and nationalist critic of free trade, who as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is perfectly placed to slow and block the administration's foreign policy.

Assistant Editor, the Guardian based in Washington, DC. In October 1997 the author will become the European Editor of the Guardian.

Deeply sceptical of Clinton's attempt to clear the financial books with the United Nations, of his determination to extend the free trade agenda into Latin America and his hope to include China in the World Trade Organization, Senator Helms is but the most prominent figure of an enduring isolationist sentiment in the United States. His power is clear, from the way that he has delayed, if not blocked, ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention, even though Republican worthies from former general Colin Powell to the former secretary of state, James Baker, have rallied to the treaty's support.

As co-author with Congressman Dan Burton of the Helms-Burton act, which makes foreign companies who presume to operate in Cuba liable to sweeping damages in American courts, Helms has engineered serious difficulties in United States relations with its closesr allies in Europe and in Canada. The extraterritorial implications of the Helms-Burton act are based on combined assumptions of legislative arrogance and American predominance which are the hallmarks of Helms's world view. Its roots are at once isolationist and superior: political introspection with a superiority complex.

This bodes ill for much of the foreign policy of the Clinton administration. First at risk is its dealings with Russia, from the move to a third Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START III) to extended financial support, to the tricky prospects for NATO enlargement. The second threat is to the efforts of the White House to cajole China into a cooperative role in Asia, where again the fund-raising embarrassments of the Clinton campaign give Helms a striking prospect of adding Republican support to those Democratic liberals who do not want to renew China's most-favoured-nation trading status in 1997. Helms stands on suspicious guard against each one. He has already blocked an array of ambassadorial appointments and is holding the State Department's budget hostage to his demands for a streamlining for the Agency for International Development (AID) which threatens to emasculate what remains of the Agency. …