Courtesy Reuters

Clinton’s First Year


One year’s perspective is a meager basis for judging the impact of any president on the course of American foreign policy. History provides some cautionary examples for both critics and supporters of President Clinton’s first year. Like Clinton, two earlier presidents, Harry Truman and Warren Harding, took office at historic moments when eras of great struggle had come to an end, when old enemies had been defeated and the world looked like a much safer place. Both came to be judged very differently by history than they were judged after their first year in office: Truman because he moved to a much clearer and stronger course; Harding because his early success was based on illusions--illusions that helped to produce the debacle of the 1930s.

Despite the admiration with which Harry Truman’s conduct of foreign policy is now widely viewed, his first postwar year in foreign policy was a stumbling performance, marked by growing tension between the president and Secretary of State James Byrnes and confusion about the direction of U.S. foreign policy. It was not until the end of his second full year in office, with George Marshall as his new secretary of state and with the announcement of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, that the policy of containment first became clear. It was not until decades later that the success of that policy brought it the praise that is fully its due.

Warren Harding got off to a much stronger start in foreign policy, assisted by a secretary of state of extraordinary legal abilities, Charles Evans Hughes, a former justice of the Supreme Court and presidential nominee. In Hughes’ capable hands a foreign policy of retreat and isolation was successfully presented as the active pursuit of peace by means of diplomacy and economic leverage, without the unpleasantness of serious security commitments. The Washington Conference on Naval Armaments was convened in 1921 and concluded its work before the end of Harding’s first year in office, to warm bipartisan applause. Even a decade later, the Washington Conference was acclaimed by President Hoover as " the first step in history toward the disarmament of the world. That step was accompanied by the momentous treaties which restored good will among the nations bordering upon the Pacific Ocean and gave to all the world the inestimable blessings of peace and security."

Any postwar assessment, however, must follow the lines of historian John Chalmers Vinson’s devastating critique:

[T]he conference had created a new diplomacy of trust backed by the sanction of moral force....A policy which in some respects was an acquiescence to the line of least resistance was rationalized, by wishful thinking, into a noble ideal—the protection of democracy. In the Twentieth Century this proved to be a parchment peace. It was peace conceived in the hope that pledges and public opinion unaided by international organizations and military force could meet the problems of a world power.

Will Bill Clinton’s first year in foreign affairs ultimately look like Truman’s, a halting first step toward addressing the real dangers to U.S. interests and acknowledging the need for American leadership to secure world peace? Or will his administration forge along in Harding’s footsteps, indulging the comfortable conviction that the major threats to American security disappeared with the Cold War and that the United States can now protect its interests in the world with minimal effort?

President Clinton’s foreign policy already looks much stronger than it did before his recent victory in the battle over the NAFTA. A defeat in that fight would have been calamitous for U.S. foreign policy, beyond just the loss of the agreement. But the president’s victory has done more than merely avoid harmful consequences. It has strengthened him at home as well as abroad, in part by dispelling doubts about his ability to take on a tough fight against popular opponents. And it is certainly promising that one of the most important political successes of this young president challenged the argument that the United States can no longer afford to play an active and engaged role in the world. It is also promising that this victory represented a strong bipartisan effort.

Whether Clinton will grow as Truman did in his role as leader of the world’s greatest democracy and strongest power, or whether he will ultimately build a record more reminiscent of Warren Harding s, depends very much on his learning the right lessons from the foreign policy difficulties that he has experienced in his first year.


A sense of confusion about defining and pursuing centrally important national interests is the most troubling aspect of the Clinton foreign policy at the one–year mark. With the important exception of the NAFTA debate, the administration has thus far failed to articulate an understanding of the national interest sufficiently compelling to engage major efforts by the country as a whole, or by the president personally, in international affairs. In addition, there has been a tendency to shift responsibility--crucial to successful leadership--away from the president and toward subordinates; away from the United States and to its allies, for example the Europeans on Bosnia or the Japanese and South Koreans on North Korea; and away from this administration and toward its predecessor with the rhetoric of "inherited crises."

In fact every new administration always starts with a world that it inherits That includes successes as well as problems. The NAFTA was an inherited success. The accord between Israel and the PLO would not have happened without the peace process launched by President Bush or, even more fundamentally, without the U.S victory in the Gulf War. Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation is an inherited success, and much of the success the administration claims on the "big" issues, such as Asia comes from a return to essentially the same broad policies as its predecessors, despite campaign rhetoric threatening more confrontational policies on such issues as trade.

But every administration is responsible for what it makes of the situations it inherits. In Somalia, President Clinton tried to improve on a modest success and ended up with a sizable fiasco. In Haiti he took a dubious commitment to President Aristide and deepened it, leaving himself with no obvious way out other than prolonged sanctions or the intervention of foreign peacekeepers. In Bosnia, Clinton properly criticized the policy of his predecessor but then failed in his effort to improve on it, leaving the situation unchanged except for the appearance of American weakness and inability to lead. What ties each of these three crises together is the all–important matter of deciding whether and how to commit American military force. In the cases of Somalia and Haiti the administration has engaged American military prestige on issues of little or no importance to U.S national interests; on Bosnia, it has failed to develop an effective course of action that balances the considerable national interests with the significant risks involved.

It is ironic that the use of force should have emerged now as such a prominent issue. It would have been plausible to argue, at the start of the Clinton administration, that military issues would be less salient, given the disappearance of the global threat that had preoccupied the United States for four decades and the steadily increasing importance of international economics and trade. It is to the credit of the administration that it has not taken the isolationist view that the United States has no interests in the world that warrant the use of force. But it has failed to explain what American interests are worth defending and to justify the actions that it has taken in relation to those interests.

The mistake in Somalia was not the original decision to intervene. The initial success of Operation Restore Hope demonstrated that the United States had the means to save tens of thousands of innocent lives at almost no risk to American forces; to have done nothing would have placed the United States in the position of people who witness a murder that they could prevent simply by picking up the phone. The mistake was first to allow the United Nations, with much less military capability than the original U.S. intervention force, to pursue the much more ambitious, if not impossible, goal of "nation–building;" and then to compound that error by adopting the corollary goal of subduing General Aideed, a combat mission that only U.S. forces could perform and only at considerable risk. To send American troops into actual combat where there is no significant U.S. national interest was misguided. Having stabilized the situation by early 1993, the United States should have turned the mission over--as it appeared to do in March--to U.N peacekeepers who could have maintained the security of food supplies in a broad area of the country.

The Bush administration decided to make an example of Haiti as a way to deter antidemocratic coups elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere (although it is doubtful that U.S. actions made the coup plotters in Venezuela, for example, fear that the United States would impose an oil embargo on them). Thus it placed a particularly warm embrace, complete with Oval Office visits, around a democratically elected leader whose own commitment to democratic practices is dubious. The sanctions are most likely to fail--deepening poverty in the hemisphere’s poorest country and hurting the poorest of Haiti the most. But the policy is likely to fail even if it succeeds in securing Aristide’s return, since that might merely intensify the violence and disorder in the country. Neither outcome is likely to reduce the pressure of illegal immigration to the United States.

Instead of seeking a middle ground that might eventually restore a semblance of moderate government (though not necessarily Aristide himself), the Clinton administration has tightened the Bush sanctions and intensified its support for Aristide. If Haitian military thugs had not scared them away there would now be American troops in Haiti to provide training assistance to a hoped–for Aristide regime. Without a change of policy, pressures are bound to grow for American military action either to restore Aristide to power or to maintain order if he returns The Clinton administration must resist these pressures or risk another debacle like Somalia.

Bosnia is the toughest case of all because it does affect larger U.S. interests in European stability, and the inaction that began with the Bush administration therefore has broader consequences. Some of these have been widely noted, such as the loss of confidence in NATO and the damage to relations between the West and the Muslim world; others are less noticed but perhaps just as important, such as the strengthening of pronuclear sentiments in Ukraine. The problem is that, real though these consequences may be, the results of a U.S. military intervention are potentially worse, including the very great likelihood of a forced military retreat, a result that would be far more damaging than continued inaction. This is particularly true of a major ground force intervention, but even air power is not immune to this risk. If bombing is intended to produce results rather than merely to punish, and if it fails to produce these results, the United States is then left with the unpalatable choice of a prolonged campaign with no certain outcome, or disengagement and a loss of credibility.

There is an alternative to the direct use of U.S. force that the United States failed to pursue with sufficient determination or skill. It starts with treating the Bosnian government like a real government-including opening an embassy in Sarajevo--and goes on to assist Bosnia in various ways, including military supplies From this perspective, applying the arms embargo originally imposed on Yugoslavia to the Bosnian government is not simply an unjust denial of the right of victims to defend themselves against aggression, it is also a strategic and political blunder. It deprives Washington of the one forceful option that does not risk American lives. The Clinton administration was right to try to lift the embargo, but it did so without apparently understanding the magnitude of the opposition it would encounter and without any serious plan for meeting it. This halfhearted effort was bound to fail, and in doing so it made the situation worse than before because of the loss of U.S. credibility.

The use of force cannot be approached in an experimental way, by dispatching military personnel to Haiti to withdraw them if they meet opposition; or embarking on a hunt for Aideed to abandon it if it gets difficult. (An even worse tactic, from this point of view, would be to use bombing to send a signal to the Serbs and see how they respond.) Nor can leadership be exercised simply by going and asking other countries for their views. What is too rarely appreciated about the leadership that President Bush exercised in putting together the Gulf coalition is that it consisted of much more than placing long–distance phone calls and dispatching Secretary of State James Baker around the world. Most of all it rested on his powerful personal commitment that the United States would get the job done and that countries that signed up with America would not find themselves caught holding the bag. Without that kind of demonstrated will--and the capabilities to back it up—Washington’s prospective partners will not tell it what they want because they will fear a course of action that brings risks but no results.

Some Clinton administration officials have attempted to dismiss the painful experiences of Somalia and Haiti by pointing out that those regions are less important than Russia or East Asia and that therefore their blunders have no consequence. In one sense this rationalization is merely a statement of the obvious: marginal regions are marginal. But it misses the point that the ability of the United States to use force effectively--wherever it decides to do so--is itself a major interest of this country and is the foundation of the substantial military stability among the major powers that the world enjoys today. This ability to use force has been jeopardized to some extent by setting political or military goals that were not truly central to U.S. interests. Perceived American weakness in the "unimportant" arenas of Somalia and Haiti, for example, could lead to a catastrophic misjudgment of U.S. intentions in East Asia.

Additionally, the pattern of testing out policies and backing away from them may cause the American people to question whether any international issues are to be considered vital for the nation. By too casually committing U.S. forces in situations that are not critical and where the commitment is thus halfhearted, the administration runs the risk that it will not be able to commit forces later in truly vital situations, and that such a commitment would be presumed halfhearted in any case.

Some decline in the perception of American power since the dramatic success of the Gulf War was inevitable, particularly given the large cuts the United States is making in its defense establishment. The failures of the last year have dangerously accelerated that decline. This is disturbing because respect for American strength and confidence in U.S. ability to use force will become critical if developments in either Russia or Asia--areas of unarguable significance--bring the United States to the point of international crisis. The makings of such a crisis are unfortunately discernible in North Korea’s continued push to acquire nuclear weapons, a development that President Clinton has correctly called unacceptable. Military and political credibility are far too important to be dissipated, as they have been, in marginal commitments. Credibility helps deter future provocations that might otherwise result in a war.


A successful foreign policy depends upon a clear definition of national interests, but it also depends on a clear understanding of how to pursue those interests. In its use of the mechanisms of foreign policy the Clinton administration needs to be more cautious in its embrace of two concepts that have become popular of late: multilateralism and peacekeeping.

At one level there is nothing new about multilateralism. Throughout the Cold War period it has been U.S. policy to summon as much international support as possible and spread the burden of action to as many partners as possible. To do so is simply common sense. It is something else to say, as Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff apparently did, that the United States can no longer afford to act except multilaterally.1 This is a particularly odd doctrine at a time when the relative strength of the U.S. is still enormous: the demise of its Cold War competitors has left it with unchallenged military strength. Even with the defense burden reduced to little more than three percent of GNP--roughly half the burden America sustained during the Cold War--the United States is by far the world’s strongest military power. Its economy is also the world’s largest and, as is becoming increasingly clear, the strongest. America’s predominance is magnified when one considers that the stronger of the other countries in the world are all close allies.

It is fair enough to say that the United States must count on those increasingly strong allies to do their part. But multilateralism emphasizes not alliances but much looser groupings, which necessarily must include countries that do not share close common interests, particularly at the global level of the United Nations. For its advocates such a broadly indiscriminate grouping both avoids the exclusivity of alliance–like relationships and forces the United States to pursue common international interests rather than presumably narrow national ones.

The end of the Cold War has made cooperative action through the United Nations newly feasible in many cases by eliminating the threat of a Soviet veto, most dramatically during the Gulf War. But the Gulf War coalition was the product of special circumstances; a relatively small number of core members had a common view of the threat to their vital interests and were able to persuade others to support those goals through political and economic persuasion--in part because the other nations did not have competing concerns. The Gulf War alliance cannot provide a realistic model for future post–Cold War crisis management. A truly multilateral approach presumably would be directed toward some common purpose, determined either by vote of an international body or by decision of the secretary–general of the United Nations.

It is conceivable that nations may on occasion subordinate their national interests to internationally derived aims when there are no significant conflicts involved (as in purely humanitarian missions) and where minimum effort is called for. But, as we have seen in Bosnia, this can be a formula for inaction, governed by the lowest common policy denominator. (This is the only explanation for why both the Clinton and the Bush administrations have failed to treat Libya--which cold-bloodedly murdered hundreds of Americans--with anything like the severity applied to Haiti, which resembles Libya only in its internal behavior.) This is not an approach that should content the United States where important national interests are at stake. In such cases, as in the Gulf crisis, Washington needs to shape a consensus that supports American interests consistent with fundamental international principles--as both administrations failed to do in Bosnia--and be prepared to act, if necessary, with only those partners that share its purposes. In fact the United States’ determination to act independently and its ability to do so will increase the chances of creating the consensus it desires.

The multilateral approach may go too far as well as not far enough. The United States must not engage its forces and put its personnel at risk except on behalf of important national interests, as determined by the American people and their elected leaders. Failure to observe that limitation is not only a violation of the implicit contract with the men and women who volunteer for the armed forces--a violation having practical as well as moral consequences--but it is bound to lead to a collapse of the political support necessary to sustain U.S. troops in combat, as happened in Somalia. Unless the president can present a military mission as serving important U.S. national interests, the public will not support even low levels of casualties.


Like "multilateralism," "peacekeeping" is in danger of being misapplied There is a well–established and useful function of peacekeeping forces in situations like the Sinai, where there is truly a peace to be kept and where the peacekeeping forces serve the function of assuring each party that the others are in compliance. It is quite a different matter to introduce peacekeeping forces to compel the parties to a conflict to stop fighting, without any agreement on the terms and conditions for doing so. To call the latter "peace enforcement" at least acknowledges the problem but still conceals the risks involved.

These are particularly dangerous if the conflict is not one between organized groups but rather civil strife that has erupted because of the collapse of effective authority. If care is not taken, international forces will be introduced not as peacekeepers or even peace enforcers but as a substitute for effective civil authority Many of the proposals for use of international forces in these situations are asking, in effect, that they play the role of the old imperial powers. Yet despite the lure of riches and glory, the imperial powers lacked the will to sustain such a role; it is not clear why an international force should fare better, absent any specific national interest. Unless the international force can muster an exceptional level of local support, it will have to use force and take casualties that will cause its mission to be questioned around the world.

A less obvious but no less important problem with peacekeeping in conditions of conflict is the emphasis it places on the neutrality of the peacekeepers. At first glance it is appealing to talk about bringing in a neutral force to stop the fighting, not to take sides. But the consequence is that the peacekeepers cannot take sides even between victims and aggressors. This presents a practical as well as a moral difficulty: by precluding support of local forces the requirement of neutrality increases the requirement for outside intervention. In many cases the most effective option that does not put U.S. forces at risk is to support local forces--Afghanistan is the most dramatic but not the only example. Yet in Bosnia the United States is contemplating committing thousands of peacekeepers because it is unable to help the Bosnians defend themselves, in part because doing so might endanger the peacekeeping forces that are already there.

Breaking out of this circle requires choosing sides, choosing between victims and aggressors. That is harder than it sounds, because the issues are rarely one–sided. The president has joked that in the Cold War things were easier because the threats were clear. This is odd coming from the leader of the party whose presidential standard–bearer in 1972 called for slashing the U.S. defense budget to $55 billion and whose leader in the Senate was the author of the Mansfield Amendment, which called for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Europe. The threat was not viewed by everyone as clear–cut: recall the ridicule heaped on President Reagan for using the term "evil empire" to describe the Soviet Union, a term that has since been adopted by the Russians themselves. Moreover, there was enormous controversy about what to do on such issues as intermediate–range nuclear forces in Europe. At a time when the Reagan administration was struggling to get European support for the deployment of U.S. Pershings and ground–launched cruise missiles, the House of Representatives was passing resolutions supporting a nuclear freeze, which would have made those deployments impossible and would have preserved the Soviet preponderance in intermediate–range missiles.

The fact that these issues are almost always ambiguous should not obscure the fact that choice is sometimes necessary, nor should the fact that choosing sides inevitably means reducing the number of countries cooperating with the United States and perhaps means encountering opposition. America cannot have it both ways; it cannot achieve substantial foreign policy aims, militarily or otherwise, if those aims must be limited to the shared interests of the most general of all international assemblies.


The world is still sufficiently dangerous that it requires leadership to maintain peace, leadership that only the United States can provide and from which the United States benefits along with most other nations. The dangers do not come from Somalia or Haiti, but rather, in the near to medium term, they come from what National Security Adviser Anthony Lake has called "backlash states" like Iran and Iraq, particularly if those states acquire nuclear weapons. In the longer term much greater threats could emerge if the United States fails to maintain the broad peace and stability that has been achieved in the great power centers of Europe and Asia.

Some of the issues on which the administration has so far been able to claim successes are likely to get more difficult. The policy of dual containment of Iraq and Iran, for example, provided a much–needed break with old notions of depending on a balance between the two to protect security in the gulf. But, except for the excellent decision to increase pre–positioning of U.S. military equipment in the Gulf, there is not a clear commitment to the policy, and it is likely to be severely tested by Iraq’s efforts--now supported by France--to lift the U.N. sanctions. A victory of that magnitude for Saddam Hussein would be a terrible setback for stability in the Middle East, including the very promising peace process. It also presents the very high likelihood of a repeat Iraqi attack in a few years, but with Saddam Hussein then benefiting from all the helpful analysis that he can read about why he failed in his first attempt.

Yet there is no sign so far of any high–level attention to this problem. And despite all the earlier criticism of President Bush by the new president and vice president, the Clinton administration has done virtually nothing to call Iraq to account for its renewed claims on Kuwait, its border incursions, its oppression of Shia in the south, or its war crimes in Kuwait. The only exception to this pattern of inaction--a pattern that suggests a desire to avoid the whole issue of Iraq--was the response to the attempted assassination of former President Bush. Even that response finessed the need to prepare American public opinion or to mobilize international support by selecting a kind of response that required no cooperation from another country (even for bases) and that would be completed virtually at the moment it became public. Its military effect, moreover, was negligible, hardly proportionate to the enormity of what the Iraqis tried to do.

These immediate and pressing crises must be dealt with while long–term problems are simultaneously grappled with, the most critical of which is certainly the future of Russia. President Clinton was right, of course, to back President Yeltsin strongly in last fall’s crisis. There was no alternative to Yeltsin at the time that offered any hope for the success of democracy in Russia. The United States has a huge stake in that success and in the continuation of Russia’s generally moderate foreign policy. But support for Yeltsin so far has required little more than rhetoric. Important rhetoric, to be sure, but the rhetoric also requires radio broadcasting, which is being cut back during the campaign.

More worrisome, the United States has made its entire policy for Central and Eastern Europe hostage to Yeltsin’s success, a success over which it has little control By identifying its own foreign policy success so closely with Yeltsin s success, the administration risks losing the capacity to assess Yeltsin critically, a mistake the Bush administration made with Mikhail Gorbachev. It already seems to be subordinating its policy toward other countries in the region to concern about how those policies will affect Yeltsin, even where U.S. interests may be large and the effect on Yeltsin marginal. Thus the administration seems not only unwilling to challenge Russian actions in its so–called "near abroad," but also seems unresponsive to the security concerns of the East Europeans and unenthusiastic in its support for Ukrainian independence. A policy of "Russia first," pursued with balance, makes sense as long as Russia is proceeding on a moderate and democratic course, but the administration is slipping into a dangerous and misguided policy of "Russia only."

Despite the rhetoric, the Partnership for Peace is a sharp rebuff to the Central Europeans’ plea for NATO membership. In his last book, Ambassador to the Former Soviet Republics Strobe Talbott described how President Bush skillfully overcame Mikhail Gorbachev’s strong opposition to German membership in NATO, eventually persuading him that it made sense for Russia. Yet Ambassador Talbott’s own administration seems to have simply yielded to Russian objections to Central European membership.

Ukraine is a more difficult and urgent problem. Even though the Ukrainians have not always made it easy for the United States to help them, neither the Bush nor Clinton administrations have very helpful track records. It is important to the United States that Ukraine be both independent and nonnuclear. Both of these objectives are important, and the relationship between them is complex. It gets even more complex when one adds the goal of economic reform (which is going badly and the goal of peaceful relations with Russia (which is in some respects the overarching goal). But the United States seems to be in danger of pursuing the nuclear issue at the expense of everything else, in a way that could weaken Ukrainian independence and invite much bigger trouble. If, as currently planned, President Clinton visits Moscow and Minsk while bypassing Kiev, his actions will send all the wrong signals to those in Ukraine who fear that the United States does not care about their independence as well as to those in Russia who believe that Ukrainian independence is only temporary. Staying away from Kiev, it is true, will send a powerful message of U.S. unhappiness on the nuclear issue, but it will not make that issue easier to solve. The president would do far better to use a visit to advance the ideas Secretary Aspin put forward earlier, to place the nuclear weapons in Ukraine under transitional international control. But they seem reluctant to press this initiative, once again apparently because of the negative Russian reaction.

In East Asia long–term interests and short–term dangers combine to provide the most likely crisis that will face President Clinton in 1994: North Korea. There is little likelihood that the present policy of cajolery and inducements can persuade North Korea to abandon its goal of acquiring nuclear weapons. It may settle for the kind of loose constraints that allowed Iraq to progress rapidly toward a nuclear capability (even though officially in compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty), but it is hard to see how President Clinton could square such an accommodation with his publicly declared determination to prevent North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons. To achieve a real solution, the United States will have to confront the North Koreans with much greater potential costs. That is a dangerous course, but a North Korean nuclear capability would be even more dangerous. In any event the United States should be looking at plans to strengthen the defense of South Korea, not bargaining away its ability to hold military exercises.

In any such serious crisis where critical U.S. interests are involved, the president will have to articulate an effective case for the national interests that are at stake; he must persuade leaders of other countries that he is determined to act and not merely polling them for their views; and he must demonstrate that he and his team can handle a crisis involving the risk of force.

Bill Clinton brings some exceptional talents to this role. He has the ability to master the issues and to present a persuasive case to the American people. With the NAFTA victory behind him, he has demonstrated the toughness to persevere in a difficult fight and to carry the American people with him. But to succeed, the president must overcome the impression that he has himself helped to implant in the public mind, that foreign issues don’t matter--that it is rather "the economy, stupid." He must overcome his own apparent annoyance at having to address issues of foreign policy at all, and accept that it is a major part of his responsibilities. And he must recognize that, although the issues are often complex, with powerful arguments on both sides and agonizing risks involved, a certain simplicity and clarity of articulation are ultimately required when vital U.S. interests are at stake.

If the president can meet this challenge, he may discover that good foreign policy makes for good domestic politics. More important, he might have a place in history as a president who made the world a safer place, not one who encouraged comfortable illusions: that is, as a Truman, not a Harding.


1 To his credit, Secretary of State Warren Christopher a few days later delivered a speech on the importance of U.S. leadership, and the administration denied that Tarnoff’s thinking represented official policy. Nevertheless, Tarnoff is the third–ranking official in the State Department, and his views must carry some weight.

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