Starting Over: Foreign Policy Challenges for the Second Clinton Administration

The second Clinton administration begins with an uneven inheritance in the area of foreign policy. On the positive side, the president and those around him have four years of experience working with the issues, one another, and foreign leaders. There is as well the momentum that stems from significant accomplishments, most notably in promoting liberal trade; stabilizing or at least defusing situations in Haiti, Bosnia, the Middle East, and North Korea; and managing a severe financial problem in Mexico, one that could have led to a global economic crisis.

The Clinton administration also has the continued luxury of conducting foreign policy in the absence of a major adversary. This is not to say there are no hostile forces—there are, including several so-called rogue states and terrorist and criminal organizations, as well as other governments that can be expected to resist the United States on particular issues. But there is no successor to the Soviet Union, no global competitor of the United States.

At the same time, Mr. Clinton begins his second term with handicaps. It is some seven years after the end of the Cold War, and still there is no intellectual or political consensus on how to view the world or structure America s relationship with it. That we call it the “post-Cold War world” testifies to our confusion, as does the absence of any doctrine or idea to replace containment and guide the country’s foreign policy.

Nor did any clear policy consensus emerge from the president’s first term. There was not so much a Clinton foreign policy as foreign policies. At various times, Mr. Clinton and his advisers emphasized promoting democracy and human rights, boosting U.S. exports, alleviating humanitarian hardship, or maintaining the balance of power in critical regions such as the Persian Gulf or Northeast Asia. Similarly, the first Clinton administration began by espousing an ambitious concept of what multilateralism could accomplish and ended with a number of actions that were nothing so much as unilateralism in practice.

The 1996 election did little to clarify matters. The presidential campaign as well as the congressional competitions largely ignored events beyond the country’s borders. The relative neglect of international affairs means that the winning candidates are not locked into positions that helped them win over voters but would pose an obstacle to intelligent governing. Yet it also means that the Clinton administration cannot lay claim to any mandate in this area. Nor did the campaign prepare the American people for any sacrifice. To the contrary, it only reinforced the impression that the world is a relatively safe place and that international concerns can continue to take a back seat to domestic matters.

This mixed inheritance makes it inevitable that the second Clinton administration will face two sets of challenges. The first will be overseas and will involve relations with the other leading powers of the day and a series of both major and minor flashpoints or crises. The second set of foreign policy challenges will come here at home, where support for international involvement falls short of what is required. How President Clinton deals with both sets of challenges will determine his legacy in the foreign policy realm and, quite possibly, overall.

Beyond America’s Borders

The most significant foreign policy challenge facing the incoming administration involves relations between the United States and the other great powers of the era: China, Russia, Japan, and Germany and Western Europe. These countries possess the lion’s share of the world’s economic and military might. Their ability to agree on the norms or standards that should shape international life will give this period of history its character. Similarly, their cooperation is essential if we are to see the emergence and strengthening of the institutions that will help structure or regulate post-Cold War international relations.

Achieving such consensus will be far from easy. Indeed, during Mr. Clinton’s first term, U.S. relations with each of these powers deteriorated. To point this out is not to blame the president and his foreign policy team, although it is fair to say that American inconsistency, unilateralism, and above all a lack of regular high-level attention by policymakers did contribute to this development. Improved relations will require a more disciplined agenda on our part and then sustained effort to address U.S. priorities with the leaders of these states.

We will need to continue talking with Russia about its relationship with an enlarged NATO—Moscow deserves a voice, not a veto—and the United States should be willing to adjust arms control arrangements inherited from the Cold War to meet changed circumstances and legitimate Russian concerns. With Germany and Europe there needs to be a greater effort to find common approaches to out-of-area problems, along with less recourse to unilateralism on our part when we disagree, as is the case in policy toward both Iran and Cuba.

No relationship may prove as fateful as that between the United States and China. Indeed, managing China’s emergence as a great power could well prove to be the defining foreign policy effort of this era. We would be wise to place our priorities on China’s external behavior, the area where the stakes are the largest, the impact the most immediate, and our leverage greatest, and not allow U.S. policy to be determined by hunger for China’s market or frustration over human rights. With Japan as well the United States needs a broader relationship, one in which trade concerns do not overwhelm all else but in which we can consult profitably about events in Korea and involving China.

The second principal overseas challenge will involve the Persian Gulf and Northeast Asia. These are the two theaters where the United States has vital national interests, where those interests face clear threats, and where local states are dependent on Washington for help. It may be worth noting that Korea was the site of the first major conflict of the Cold War, and the Gulf the first major conflict of the post-Cold War world. We will require clear communication—both of what we expect and of what we are prepared to do if those expectations are either met or not—as well as the capabilities to back up our words if we are to avoid crises with an increasingly weak North Korea in one region and an increasingly robust Iran and Iraq in another.

The third challenge is not a single one so much as a category. It includes many problems that dominated foreign policymaking during the first term, most notably Bosnia, Haiti, the Middle East, and Mexico. In addition, terrorism, uncertainty over the fate of Hong Kong, growing tensions between Greece and Turkey—these and other problems are sure to intrude. The challenge will be to address them without losing sight of more important if not always more urgent concerns, something best accomplished by early and regular involvement with the full range of foreign policy tools. The worst approach is almost always to wait until a crisis erupts, at which point we are often left with few choices other than those provided by the military.

Foreign Policy Begins at Home

The world of the next four years is unlikely to be as stable as that of the previous four, which were remarkably calm by any measure. As a result, foreign policy in the second term is likely to be more difficult and demanding. As much as the president and many of those around him may want to focus on domestic matters, they are unlikely to be able to do so.

The president has already chosen his principal foreign policy lieutenants. Now several relationships must be sorted out, including the degree of presidential involvement, the power of cabinet secretaries relative to one another and to the national security adviser, and the role of the National Economic Council and the weighting of international economic concerns. No one system is right for all presidents, but history strongly suggests the need for regular presidential involvement, a strong national security adviser who can broker differences between the cabinet heads and provide independent counsel as required, and a strong NEC that ensures that trade considerations are factored in but not allowed to dominate national security decisionmaking.

The process of making foreign policy will be complicated by the continuation of divided government. There is no solution to this challenge, just as there is no substitute for constant and regular consultations between the executive and legislative branches.

The president will have to spend a good deal of political capital working with Congress to provide the funds—nearly $300 billion—needed for the United States to continue its leadership role. On spending for defense and intelligence, there seems to be a floor of about $265 billion. Indeed, here the biggest question is less how much is spent overall than what the money is spent on in particular. Balancing among requirements stemming from the need to hedge against great power conflict, planning for the two dominant regional contingencies, and undertaking the many lesser actual and potential deployments is the overarching challenge. What this suggests is the need for capabilities that are not only large but varied and flexible, able to contend with a wide range of challenges in a variety of locales.

No such floor exists under funding for foreign aid and diplomacy. Although economies from consolidating oversight agencies are still possible, and despite the fact that some programs may not yet have been sufficiently revised to meet the changing demands of the post-Cold War world, it is nevertheless true that years of budget cuts have left us resource poor. The result is a loss of leverage and tools that could help us address a host of problems before they reach a point where there is little we can usefully do or where military intervention is the only option.

But as important as dollars are, the most important resource affecting the course of American foreign and defense policy may be time—in particular, the time of the president and his most senior aides. It is often too late once the problem or crisis materializes. We need regular, active involvement as a matter of course—and regular high-level consultations with the other major powers as a matter of schedule.

In the end, all the dollars and all the tools in the world count for little if the American people and their representatives are not prepared to support their use. Only the president has the power to persuade the public that casualties are worth suffering on behalf of certain interests or causes. We need less emphasis on exit strategies and more on the benefits of acting and staying the course. This means that the bully pulpit of the presidency must be used consistently to make the case for foreign policy.

From Containment to Regulation

The lack of an intellectual construct for American foreign policy is not cost-free. Doctrines provide useful guidance for sizing and shaping defense spending, for determining whether and how to intervene with military force or other tools, for deciding where promoting democracy can dominate policy and where it must take a back seat. Without such a structure, policymakers become reactive, all too easily swayed by the latest televised image.

What should this construct be? I would argue for a doctrine of “regulation” to shape the behavior and, in some cases, capabilities of governments and other actors so that they are less likely or able to act aggressively beyond their borders or toward their own citizens and more likely to conduct trade and other economic relations according to agreed norms and procedures.

The focus on inter-state concerns should be dominant rather than exclusive. Considerations of “justice”—democracy, human rights, human welfare—would, though, ordinarily be of a lower priority. So, too, would promoting exports. The reasoning is simple. Order is the more basic concern. One can have order without justice but not the other way around. Similarly, one cannot have trade without stability.

Some of this can be best achieved by creating or expanding multilateral institutions, be they regional (such as NAFTA) or global (such as the World Trade Organization). In other instances, less formal coalitions of the willing and able, organized by the United States, will be the best available mechanism for accomplishing U.S. objectives. In all instances, what is certain is that our ability to realize our goals will be a direct consequence of our willingness and ability to lead, something that in turn will reflect our willingness to devote resources—our wealth, lives, and time—to the tasks before us.