The Clinton Administration and the New Foreign Policy Consensus

By Fretz, Lewis | New Zealand International Review, March-April 1997 | Go to article overview

The Clinton Administration and the New Foreign Policy Consensus


Fretz, Lewis, New Zealand International Review


From 1945 until 1965 American presidents could assume that their foreign policy initiatives would be supported by a bipartisan consensus that included the Congress, the press, the universities, and the great majority of the public. The Vietnam War shattered that consensus, and no president since 1965, not even President Ronald Reagan at the height of his popularity, has been successful in building a new consensus to undergird American foreign policy. Only now, 25 years after the conclusion of the Vietnam War, has a president, Bill Clinton, begun to reconstitute that consensus, and he has done it in spite of his initial inexperience and lack of interest in the conduct of American foreign relations.

In the first eighteen months of the Clinton administration, the only foreign policy consensus that emerged was one that emphasised the dismal performance of the President and his advisers. The Clinton team talked about assertive multilateralism, the enlargement of democracy, the defence of human rights, the peaceful settlement of disputes, and the promotion of America's economic interests. There was no denying the genuineness of their Wilsonian convictions (the rule of law, peaceful resolution of conflicts, collective security against aggression, expansion of democracy, national self-determination, and freedom of trade), but the Clinton team lacked direction, consistency, and fortitude in its application of these principles. Above all, it seemed willing to go to any length to avoid a situation where it would have to threaten or actually employ military force to back up anything it was trying to accomplish.

Assertive multilateralism became a euphemism for deferring to the European powers and the Secretary-General of the United Nations in the Yugoslavian civil war, with disastrous results for Bosnian Muslims and Croatians, for European unity and prestige, and for the credibility of the United Nations. The enlargement of democracy fared no better, because Washington refused to employ military power against the military dictators of Haiti or the Serbian aggressors in Bosnia. The Clinton administration preached about human rights violations to China, but it refused to deny that dictatorship most favoured nation trading status. In its dealings with Japan, Washington went to the brink with Tokyo over trade disputes and placed enormous strain on the Japanese-American Security Treaty, America's most important defence pact in the entire Asia-Pacific region.

There were some achievements during these first eighteen months. The President helped broker a peace agreement between Israel and the PLO, and he supported President Boris Yeltsin and the democratic forces in Russia with money, political recognition, and never-ending encouragement. But these successes were more than outweighed by his failures in Haiti and Bosnia, his utter inability to move China on human rights violations, and his costly and unproductive brinksmanship with Japan.

The turnaround in Clinton's diplomatic fortunes occurred in September 1994 when he sent US troops into Haiti to overthrow a military junta and almost simultaneously dispatched US troops to Kuwait to deter Iraq from launching another invasion of that country. A year later the President employed US air power to punish Bosnian Serb aggression and shortly afterward committed nearly 20,000 US troops to a peace-enforcing role in Bosnia together with Washington's NATO allies and Russia. A few months after intervening in Bosnia, Clinton sent two carrier task forces into the Taiwan Strait to deter China from threatening Taiwan with military reprisals for Taipei's holding of a democratic election for the presidency of that country.

Bold leadership

Once the Clinton administration rejected assertive multilateralism in favour of bold US leadership, realised that democracy could not be defended let alone enlarged unless the United States wielded its military power on behalf of democracy, and abandoned feckless grandstanding about human rights violations and economic disputes for a pragmatic approach toward China and Japan respectively, American foreign policy could only improve. …

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