In the Stream of History: Shaping Foreign Policy for a New Era

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In the Stream of History: Shaping Foreign Policy for a New Era

By Warren Christopher
Stanford University Press, 1998
616 pp. $60.00
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It is emblematic of Christopher's tenure as secretary of state from 1993 to 1997 that what he should see fit to publish, a year after his retirement, is a collection of the principal addresses he made while in office. Although each of these 42 speeches is preceded by an introduction that places it in context, with such material comprising about half the book, the volume contains little information about the internal dynamics of foreign policy-making in the Clinton administration. Unlike previous occupants of his office, Christopher settles no scores. Unstintingly loyal to his president and generous to his colleagues and subordinates, Christopher not only habitually takes the high road but seems utterly immune to the temptation of taking the low one. The resulting book reflects well on his decency, but it is not exactly a page-turner.

Pundits both here and abroad gave the Clinton administration's foreign policy team almost uniformly low marks in its first two years. Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti, China, and North Korea were the principal exhibits of a pattern of conduct marked by vacillation and contradictory impulses. Much of the blame, inevitably, was laid at the door of the secretary of state. Step by step, however, the administration recovered its balance, and Christopher undoubtedly deserves much credit for the good sense it displayed while doing so. It discovered that making painful choices was a lot less difficult than deferring them. The impossible demand to link the renewal of most-favored-nation trading status to improvement in China's human rights performance was dropped. Force was threatened and used (with, amazingly, no casualties) in both Haiti and Bosnia. The North Korean crisis was defused. Those resolutions, in turn, shuttered momentarily the nattering nabobs of negativism and enabled the administration to claim, more and more convincingly, a solid record of accomplishment. That many Republicans were simultaneously relapsing into aggressive unilateralism made the Clinton administration look all the better. Christopher's farewell speech, which warns of the collapse in "diplomatic readiness" brought about by congressional cuts in the international affairs budget, speaks eloquently on this score.

Despite the administration's successes in the last several years, the tensions that bedeviled it at the outset have not altogether disappeared. It has reconciled, thus far, the expansion of NATO with the imperatives of maintaining good relations with a newly democratizing Russia; it is most doubtful that it will be able to do so in the future if expansion is not limited. In effective concert with Europe and Russia, it brought peace to Bosnia with an ambiguous formula that froze everything but settled nothing. It secured the ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the establishment of the World Trade Organization, and has presided over a period of extraordinary prosperity, but it has not been imaginative in devising policies to cushion the impact of globalism on low-wage workers in the United States. Despite talking up, convincingly, the merits of engagement with China, it continues to defend policies of a contrary bent, like the embargo against Cuba, for which there is no evidence of success. How those tensions are resolved will inevitably affect the judgment of Christopher's legacy, insofar as this quintessential team player may be said to have left a distinctive imprint of his own.