Beyond the Water's Edge: Foreign Policy as an Election Issue

By Chavez, Linda | Policy Review, Fall 1992 | Go to article overview

Beyond the Water's Edge: Foreign Policy as an Election Issue


Chavez, Linda, Policy Review


In almost every presidential election since World War II, differences between the two parties on major foreign-policy issues have played an important, if not decisive, role in determining the outcome. But through much of this year's campaign, most Americans have seemed uninterested in serious debate on foreign policy. The persistence of economic problems at home and the virtual elimination of the Soviet military threat have diverted attention from foreign affairs and toward solving our own domestic problems. Voters are preoccupied by the huge federal budget deficit, the lingering effects of the recession, slow economic growth, high unemployment, rising crime, and welfare dependence.

Nonetheless, it would be a tremendous mistake for Americans to become so self-absorbed that we fail to consider the security issues that still confront the United States as well as the challenges entailed in our role as the only superpower. The collapse of the Soviet empire and the repudiation of Communist ideology have been a decisive victory for the foreign policy Americans have endorsed through their choice of presidents in the postwar era. It would be high irony if voters in 1992 squandered that achievement by failing to inquire of candidates how they would safeguard the fruits of that victory if elected.

A Still Dangerous World

Soviet Communism's collapse, unfortunately, has not produced world peace. Most conflicts--even in this century--have been motivated not by ideology, as the Cold War was, but by a desire for territory or for racial, ethnic, or religious domination. Such conflicts, even when they appear to be isolated to a specific country or region, have a history of spreading beyond their original boundaries (witness the progress of World War I). The situation in the Balkans is only the most recent example of a seemingly local conflict that cannot be contained.

Already two million people have lost their homes in the former Yugoslav republic, and many are fleeing into neighboring countries. Germany, already taxed with its own domestic difficulties in integrating the former East German population and economy, now faces additional burdens in caring for hundreds of thousands of Balkan refugees. Countries as far away as Great Britain and Scandinavia are being asked to provide temporary haven for refugees. The United States cannot remain aloof from these problems, and pressure is mounting daily for direct U.S. involvement. While U.S. security interests are not directly at stake in the Balkans, there is no guarantee that humanitarian concerns or the interests of one or more of our allies might not prompt some sort of U.S. military intervention.

Nor is Yugoslavia the only place where the disintegration of Communist control has led to the outbreak of ethnic or religious violence. Thousands of deaths have occurred in Azerbaijan, Armenia, Uzbekistan, and other former Soviet republics. More important, the friction between Russia and Ukraine and the potential for some future armed conflict involving tactical nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction makes relations between these historic rivals of considerable concern to the United States. Indeed, Russia's centuries-long imperialist ambitions and territorial acquisitions make many of her neighbors and some in the international community wary, despite the encouraging embrace of democratic principles by President Yeltsin and a majority of the Russian people.

The Middle East, too, is still a tinderbox. Saddam Hussein continues his belligerent defiance of United Nations resolutions that ended the Gulf War. Fighting goes on in Lebanon, and Americans remain potential targets of terrorist kidnappers who still operate out of southern Lebanon. The Arab-Israeli conflict, too, poses great risks for the United States. By becoming virtual mediators in the ongoing negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, the United States has raised its own stakes in the outcome and mutual adherence to any agreements reached.

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