Pax Clintonia - the Clinton Foreign Policy Was Marked by an Unwillingness to Devote Adequate Resources to Sustain the Major Instruments of American Diplomacy and an Inability to Set Priorities and Develop a Coherent Strategy

By Taylor Jr., William J. | The World and I, July 2001 | Go to article overview

Pax Clintonia - the Clinton Foreign Policy Was Marked by an Unwillingness to Devote Adequate Resources to Sustain the Major Instruments of American Diplomacy and an Inability to Set Priorities and Develop a Coherent Strategy


Taylor Jr., William J., The World and I


The Clinton administration started up a U.S. foreign policy train in 1993 that headed rapidly in an unknown direction. It never doubted its ability to get there, however. The president had to communicate with switchmen at many crossroads worldwide, but the new train conductor was determined that none of them would take him far from his main destination--American domestic prosperity, where the mainstream public consensus (and the votes) resided.

Within this context, let's begin our assessment with an examination of the status of two major instruments of U.S. foreign policy--the American armed forces and the State Department--during the eight years of the Clinton administration.

In 1993, the administration inherited a military establishment that had turned itself around from the "hollow armed forces" of the 1970s during the Reagan military buildup and Bush I years. With coalition partners, America had won a great military victory in the Gulf War only two years earlier.

Eight years later, the commander in chief bequeathed to his successor an unrealistic military strategy (Be prepared to fight two nearly simultaneous wars) and a military that was overstretched, underfunded, and demoralized. According to Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Hugh Shelton at a December 2000 press conference, "Our forces are frayed."

The other major instrument of U.S. foreign policy, the State Department, also fared badly during the Clinton years, receiving less than 1 percent annually of the total federal budget for international affairs. Our country maintains 250 embassies and consulates in 160 countries; in this age of globalization and instant communications, their roles of reporting situations and trends abroad to the president and secretary of state and representing U.S. interests abroad are crucial to foreign policy success.

Yet, only after the tragic August 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam did the Clinton administration form the Overseas Presence Advisory Board. It concluded that "the U.S. overseas presence, which has provided the essential underpinnings of U.S. foreign policy for many decades, is near a state of crisis."

Assertive multilateralism

While permitting the degradation of the two major instruments of diplomacy, the Clinton administration decided to make the United States "the world's indispensable power," an ambitious foreign-policy agenda without a strategy. In the name of such vague descriptors as "assertive multilateralism," the administration addressed a set of worldwide challenges, primarily through international organizations with the United States in the lead.

The global environment; threats from rogue states and alliances of terrorists, drug traffickers, and international criminals; the moral imperatives to stop civil wars, human-rights violations, worldwide hunger, spread of disease, and refugee flows; nation building; the responsibility to foster democracy everywhere: the list kept growing for eight years. Lost in the shuffle was a clear vision of America's national interests.

What was the foreign policy balance sheet? Let's first look at the U.S. role in international institutions, then proceed with a regional survey. The Clinton administration never articulated a strategic approach to the United Nations that would serve U.S. interests. Thus, the nature of

U.S. involvement in the United Nations and its peacekeeping missions remained a political football in Congress and a bitter pill for UN members until Ambassador Richard Holbrooke brokered an acceptable payments agreement in 1999. Nevertheless, a strategic vacuum was passed to the next administration.

As for the Clinton administration's role in the World Bank, which over the years has supported the creation of many other multilateral development banks focused mainly on developing countries, such as the Asian Development Bank and the African Development Bank, the record was not good. …

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