Bill Clinton's Foreign Policy Legacy

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THERE WILL BE a Bill Clinton foreign policy legacy and it will be positive, despite substantive critiques and the ravings of the hard-core right. The legacy will essentially be determined and evaluated in the terms established by Ronald Reagan in his first campaign for the presidency: "Are you better off now than you were eight years ago?" The answer is "yes," but it's not a simple yes.

The trouble with using the "better off" standard is that the world itself is not the same as it was eight years ago, and a foreign policy to deal with it is working against a moving target. Yale University historian John Gaddis criticized Clinton's foreign policy in 1999 as being one that ignored the tradition of preserving the sovereignty of great powers and the assumption of a structured client state system. However, the international strategic paradigm has shifted dramatically in the past 10 years. The Cold War is over.

It is over because the Soviet Union, which had been operating on a shoestring and a quart of vodka, fell--primarily due to its own weight. Russia no longer has client states, nor do the other contenders for great-power roles. The era of great powers won't come again, at least not in the strategic military sense. Clinton was right about international relations as well as domestic politics when he argued that "It's the economy, stupid!"

Power in the globalized system is economic power. America's power resides in its inventiveness, productivity, and market strength, not in the size of its military or ability to fight two 20th-century wars at once. Other powers can rise, but few are in sight that can challenge on these three criteria. China comes closest, with growing impact on two counts--productivity and market strength. India has both inventiveness and market strength. Europe could have all three, but there isn't really any unified Europe yet, so we are still looking at France as its own contender for whatever power status is available.

Getting China into the World Trade Organization and the net of a million interdependencies is the equivalent of tying down Gulliver. Among the Lilliputians at work in this effort are countries such as Malaysia, Colombia, Bosnia, and Zambia, small states whose interdependencies with the U.S. and, eventually, China make them weak by themselves, but powerful in combination.

The combinations are economic, not military. These alliances show up as free-trade areas, the Group of 7 (plus), regional trade organizations, and, importantly, the United Nations. We can't possibly expect the "small powers" to stay poor and disorganized forever. Sooner or later, powerful forces like Singapore and Chile will arise and coalesce. Their strength will be in economic, not military, linkages. A coherent foreign policy had better look to the future. Clinton's has.

International stability in the future is much more likely to be undermined by terrorism and simple (but brutal) crime than by large-scale military conflicts between states. The forces to respond to such problems are police, not armies. Yet, in the hail of criticism of Clinton's foreign policy, the solitary agreement from the traditionalists and realists is on the expansion of NATO, clearly a Cold War instrument directed at large foreign enemies around military organization. …