In a wry comment in early 1932 on American reluctance to translate its indignant rhetoric protesting the September 1931 Japanese invasion of Manchuria into anything more forceful, British statesman Stanley Baldwin commented, "You will get nothing out of Washington but words--big words, but only words." This complaint rings true today. Fine promises abound in American foreign policy, but delivery--as the Bosnian government and others have discovered--is not guaranteed. With the exception of the Persian Gulf War, a consistent characteristic of recent U.S. foreign policy has been rhetoric outdistancing deeds. Expectations of decisive American action, even on supposedly vital national interests, have been raised, only to be dashed. This has been the pattern with China, Japan, Europe, Russia, and especially Bosnia.

In some ways the phenomenon is not new. A predilection for soaring oratory lies at the heart of the way the United States comports itself overseas. The rest of the world speaks unashamedly of the balance of power, the national interest, and spheres of influence. Americans have traditionally preferred a more altruistic and millennial style of oratory. Former president Richard Nixon lamented in 1980 that the American people did not respond well to the "cold cynicism of Old World Realpolitik."


In an environment where oratorical excess is the norm, to convict the Clinton administration of rhetorical overkill--as many have done--is not a novel insight. However, the Clinton administration faces a more serious charge. Its rhetoric may inflict lasting damage on American interests overseas. Today's policymakers are not just participating in a slightly disreputable but time-honored national tradition of overexuberant salesmanship and self-righteous preaching. Instead, they have reversed the legacy of American diplomacy.

In the past, deeds drove words. A hardheaded reading of reality was seen to require certain policies. Those policies were then defended and sold with extravagant rhetoric. Today words are driving deeds. Rhetorical devices--terms like "leadership," "credibility," "engagement," "sole remaining superpower," "moral ascendancy," and "American values"--have taken on a life of their own, a virtual reality that prompts policy decisions separate from any calculation of American interests. For instance, promises not to "coddle" the Chinese issued during the 1992 presidential campaign drove the incoming Clinton administration, almost against its own wishes, to adopt a trade policy toward China that was unsustainable. This betokens a dysfunctional state of affairs. If American interests cannot be identified for what they are rather than for what big words make them seem, sensible formulation and orderly execution of foreign policy become impossible.


In earlier, more successful periods of American diplomacy, rhetoric and reality worked well together. The sound bites of past statesmen would have been a fair match for the television age: Jefferson's "no foreign entanglements" to safeguard the early republic; "America for the Americans" to cleanse the Western hemisphere of European interference; "Manifest Destiny" to justify the Mexican War; John Hay's "Open Door" to assert the American role in China; Wilson's "the world must be made safe for democracy" to justify entering World War I.

Like a secret agent's cover story, these catchy phrases provided a facade behind which U.S. presidents could advance their true foreign policy. Thomas Jefferson's warnings about entanglements, for example, are usually cited as the first stirrings of American isolationism. Yet his words were rooted in practical calculations of the national interest: an alliance with one European power would have exposed the United States to retribution from another. James Polk may have been elected on a Manifest Destiny pledge to acquire the whole Oregon country, including modern British Columbia, but he quickly accepted a compromise deal along the 49th parallel with the British so that he could concentrate on war with Mexico. The rhetoric of these statesmen emanated from a national purpose. The phrasemaking--the "public diplomacy" phase--came after the substance of the policy was determined.

The contrast with today's practice is striking. All too often the slogan comes first, the substance second--as revealed in Clinton's candid comment in January 1994 that his administration had not come up with the right "bumper sticker" around which to fashion its policy toward Russia. Policymakers reach first for the sound bite tested in focus groups--"enlargement" of democracy, "lift and strike," "dual containment," "shock therapy"--and then try to construct a policy that fits it.

This is even more damaging when associated with the notion that the United States has a moral calling that sets it apart from other nations. American exceptionalism is one of the most pervasive aspects of the self-perception of U.S. foreign policy, yet it is one of the most misunderstood, particularly by contemporary practitioners.

Commonly called Wilsonianism, this sentiment began permeating foreign policy rhetoric at the turn of this century when the influences of missionary Christianity and Anglo-Saxon supremacy were added in. Typical of the time was U.S. Senator Albert Beveridge's comment that God had "marked the American people as His chosen nation to finally lead in the regeneration of the world."

George Bush sensed that the end of the Cold War brought a need to downplay this redemptive mission. In his inaugural address he proclaimed cautiously that America had more "will than wallet." In general his administration adopted a case-by-case interest-based foreign policy.

Clinton followed a very different approach. He embraced themes of high morality, and in doing so turned back the rhetorical clock. In his first full statement on foreign affairs in August 1992, Clinton said the central question of foreign policy is, "What are our values?" Two months later, Clinton repudiated what he called the "cynical calculus of pure power politics." In his inaugural address he declared that the United States would take action not to defend its interests as other nations do but "when the will and conscience of the world is defied."


These words seem reminiscent of such declarations by Wilson as "the force of America is the force of moral principle" and "[America] has a spiritual energy in her which no other nation can contribute to the liberation of mankind." In fact, Clinton's words illustrate a widespread modern misunderstanding of a key part of the Wilsonian legacy: they omit the need to back up declarations of moral rectitude with a willingness to take practical, and if necessary, forceful action on the ground.

Past statesmen did not make this mistake. President William McKinley, for example, may have claimed the annexation of the Philippines was motivated by a desire to "civilize and Christianize" the inhabitants, but he never lost sight of the main prizes--trading with Asia and forestalling German advances--nor that in order to win these prizes he needed to expand the navy.

Woodrow Wilson himself was careful to ensure that, notwithstanding the high moral tone of his rhetoric, his real-world interventions followed hardheaded calculation of the American interest and were backed by sufficient force to ensure victory. Despite his denunciation in 1913 of William Howard Taft's "dollar diplomacy" in Central America, Wilson continued Taft's policies when he became president, forcing Nicaragua, for example, to cede the United States sole rights for a trans-isthmian canal. Wilson's decision to intervene in Haiti in 1915 had as much to do with a desire to protect American financial interests as it did with a desire to spread democracy.

For all his moral revulsion over the German destruction of the Belgian city of Louvain in 1914 and his declaration that "America stands ready to help the world," Wilson realized early on that it would take a direct threat to American interests to justify entering World War I. His tough-minded ability to balance the demands of morality and national interest is shown in the fact that he could hold back during three years of trench warfare, until the Zimmermann telegram and German submarine successes in 1917 brought the threat home and prompted America's entry into the war.

In other words, Wilson knew how to steer between the contending poles of moral idealism and prudence. This skill is well established in American diplomacy. For example, in 1824 Representative Daniel Webster, a future secretary of state, counseled against military intervention in the Ottoman Empire, despite his strong support for Greek independence from Turkey. The national interest was remote. Webster said that had the national interest been more immediate (for example, had the problem been in Latin America) he would have advocated a different course on the grounds that "our duty to ourselves, our policy, and wisdom might indicate very different courses as fit to be pursued by us in the two cases."

Webster's careful differentiation between competing priorities is missing today. Those who advocate placing morality at the center of American foreign policy--regarding Bosnia, for example--remember Wilson's uplifting sense of moral purpose, McKinley's rhetorical flourishes, Roosevelt's imposing cadences, even Reagan's stark distinctions between good and evil, but forget that these presidents did not operate through words alone. High moralists overlook those presidents' adherence to the national interest (national rights, as Wilson termed it) and their understanding that without troops on the ground, fine words count for nothing. The calculations of traditional power politics were not as alien to those presidents--including Wilson--as some would-be Wilsonians care to admit. Nor did they disdain the cold mentality of realpolitik.

Failure to understand this properly has led to a faux Wilsonianism ruling the roost--that is, a diplomatic culture that imagines that high-flown words matter as much as or more than rational calculation. By focusing on the public words of earlier generations of American diplomats rather than on their actions, this culture traduces their legacy.


The damaging effects of this misunderstanding may be seen most clearly in the way that rhetoric on Bosnia from the 1992 presidential campaign has lived on to bedevil American policy in the Balkans.

Clinton was not out of order in attacking Bush on Yugoslavia in mid-1992. Bush's record was neither consistent nor virtuous, with the president adopting contradictory positions on Yugoslavia's territorial integrity and on whether to recognize the new state of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Bush policy also appeared pusillanimous, considering the scale of the fighting.

But the Bush approach did have one merit: it aligned America's commitments with its no-longer-bottomless resources. Having decided at an early stage of the Yugoslav crisis that he would not commit American troops to the area, Bush saw that America's advantage lay in giving primacy to the peace efforts of the European Union (EU). "Europe has the most at stake in this crisis," Bush administration official Ralph Johnson stated. "European leverage is greater."

Clinton's campaign rhetoric dispensed with this equation balancing commitments and resources. Discarding Bush's interest-based caution, Clinton embraced moral activism. Shortly after winning the Democratic nomination in July 1992, he demanded that the United States show "real leadership" on Bosnia. Abandoning Bush's neutrality, Clinton said that the "renegade regime of Slobodan Milošević," the Serbian president, had committed "crimes against humanity under international law." He called for the use of American air power.

A month later Clinton described Milošević as "emerging as one of the bloodiest tyrants in Europe." He criticized Bush for undercutting American ideals by siding with "familiar tyrants rather than with those who would overthrow them." In October he faulted Bush for having "embraced stability at the expense of freedom." In January 1993, following his election as president, he stated that his administration would be "more assertive" regarding Bosnia and would adopt "much more aggressive positions" than his predecessor.


Had Clinton prepared to turn his rhetoric into reality, it would have been unobjectionable. It would have meant a controversial American commitment to resolve the Bosnia problem, but it would have been clear and consistent.

The Clinton administration's first pronouncements on taking office made clear that no calculation of this path's costs had been made and that instead officials were now going to try to produce a policy that fit the rhetoric. Facing demands to spell out specific policy steps that reflected Clinton's aggressive campaign and preinaugural speeches, the incoming secretary of state, Warren Christopher, could say only that in Bosnia he had "inherited one of the most difficult foreign policy problems that can be imagined" and was still "gathering the data." It was as if Churchill, having harried Chamberlain from office in May 1940, had announced that the German problem was more complex than he had thought.

The immediate decision facing the new administration was whether to endorse the newly released second version of a peace plan devised by Cyrus Vance and David Owen, the U.N. and EU negotiators, whose work was at a delicate stage. The plan was far from perfect, as its originators acknowledged, but at the time there were no alternative ideas in play.

Criticism of the plan was therefore fair. The question was how to criticize while staying within a rational framework for mediating the conflict in Bosnia. Sadly, the administration's campaign rhetoric conditioned it to make the same mistake: to critique the plan with lofty rhetoric without proposing a practical alternative. Clinton stated that what was at stake in Bosnia was "standing up against the principle of ethnic cleansing." Christopher framed the debate in similar terms, declaring that on the question of "whether ethnic cleansing is a policy that the world will tolerate, our answer must be a resounding no."

The effect of this language, intended or not, was that the Vance-Owen plan gradually became a dead letter--but without any substitute being proposed by the administration. The new administration's first diplomatic intervention on Bosnia revealed it to be a paper tiger. Drawing on their campaign rhetoric of "real leadership," American policymakers placed themselves at the center of the Bosnian negotiations. However, they were unwilling or unable to support this leadership claim with hard resources or even a peace plan that they would forcefully try to sell to the other great powers.


This contradiction laid the foundation for the stalemate that continues to either paralyze policy or send it in logic-defying directions. Aside from the minor success of brokering the February 1994 Croatian-Bosnian federation, the administration has been unable to help its presumptive client, the Bosnian government, or to intimidate the increasingly alienated Serbs of Serbia and Bosnia into making concessions.

The Europeans have drawn ever-more-negative conclusions about the administration's seriousness. The June 1995 vacillation over American support for the funding of the U.S.-sponsored rapid reaction force exemplified the confusion that has made coordination of allied policy difficult. The consequences of this lapse and others have devastated American mediation efforts in Bosnia and diminished America's influence in world affairs.

Miscast rhetoric is not the only explanation for this state of affairs, but it has certainly played a significant part. Therefore it is worth drawing attention to the role of rhetoric in the Bosnia debacle and applying its lessons to help determine which rhetorical poses might work best for future American foreign policy. These lessons become especially appropriate today, with the onset of the presidential election cycle, when temptations for fresh rhetorical posturing will assert themselves anew.

The Clinton administration's key failure in Bosnia and elsewhere has been to ignore the example of American history that rational calculation must precede rhetoric. Few mind if American foreign policy is presented to the world in the shining vestments of allegorical righteousness. But American decisions will not command support at home or respect overseas unless reality comes first.

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  • Jonathan Clarke is a former British diplomat. His latest book is After the Crusade: American Foreign Policy for the Post-Superpower Age, coauthored by James Clad. He is currently a Guest Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
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