Bush's Spectacular Failure: A Former Clinton Policy Adviser Argues the Bush Team Has Failed Miserably at Global Economic Leadership

By Frankel, Jeffrey | The International Economy, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Bush's Spectacular Failure: A Former Clinton Policy Adviser Argues the Bush Team Has Failed Miserably at Global Economic Leadership


Frankel, Jeffrey, The International Economy


Charles Kindleberger passed away last year. One of his major contributions to our understanding of international relations was the notion that the world economic system works best if a hegemon exists who is willing and able to take the initiative to supply "public goods" to the world economy: a stable international currency, leadership of a system of free trade, international lender of last resort, and so forth. The curse of the interwar period was that the United Kingdom had lost the wealth and capacity to play that role, while the United States had not yet acquired the will to do it. The blessing of the postwar period was that the United States acquired, not just the ability, but also the willingness to play the role of hegemon of the global economy. The United States was determined not to repeat the mistakes made after the first World War when traditional American isolationism had proven disastrous. Some of the U.S. actions after World War II were unilateral, such as opening its markets to trade and giving foreign aid. Some were bilateral, such as the Marshall Plan. But measures taken were primarily multilateral: The United States was the guiding force behind the founding of such multilateral institutions as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank--institutions that embodied liberal economic values and a system of rules under which all could play and prosper.

Intellectually, it was understood throughout the postwar period that taking a leadership role, both in these institutions and otherwise, served many important purposes--interests of the United States as well as of other countries, economic goals as well as foreign policy. Domestic politics in the end would generally reach the same conclusion. True, some U.S. special interests when exposed to import competition would often speak more loudly--especially via their members of Congress--than the majority of Americans who stand to benefit from free trade. But U.S. presidents would exercise the leadership that is supposed to go with the office, and rally the necessary political forces to accomplish what was in the national interest overall. Often they would successfully invoke the Cold War to win the extra votes. Everyone understood the desirability of working in the tradition of the aftermath of World War II--of Bretton Woods and the Marshall Plan--and avoiding Versailles and 1920s isolationism, the model of the aftermath of World War I.

With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the foreign policy arguments for fl-cc trade were perceived to have diminished sharply, and the political and bureaucratic forces on that side of the table diminished. Bill Clinton was able through hard work to achieve NAFTA, normalization of trade with China, and a number of other accomplishments. But despite a record-performing economy, his best efforts, and his eloquence, he was never able to convince the American people and the Congress to give him fast-track trade negotiating authority. Clinton was unable to overcome the intransigence of Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-NC) over paying the arrears in U.S. dues to the United Nations, and unable to gain congressional support for the Mexican rescue package or a BTU tax or the Kyoto Protocol. And so on. Whether because of the end of the Cold War or the passing of the 1940s generation from positions of leadership, the necessary domestic support for internationalism had faded.

Now forward to September 11, 2001. The war on terrorism should have presented George W. Bush with the same opportunity for international leadership that the Cold War gave Presidents Truman through Reagan. The importance of international leadership should have been familiar from his family background. The domestic politics were more conducive to Bush's success on the international front than any in years. The American people were primed to be told what difficult steps would need to be taken. …

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