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Groping for a security blanket.

Bill Clinton's performance on the world stage can be fairly summed up in a memorable Churchillian phrase: a themeless pudding. Clinton was elected President on the promise to change the United States, but the rapid, profound, and often mysterious changes in the rest of the world threaten to cripple his Presidency. He came to the White House with the unrealistic hope that he could defer major foreign-policy initiatives until he had won the tough battles over taxes, deficits, health care, and other domestic issues. As President, he has had little chance to reflect on the tectonic changes in world politics that culminated in the collapse of communism, the disappearance of the Soviet Union, and the dissolution of other multi-ethnic states, much less to develop a coherent national-security strategy that takes it all into account.

During the Cold War, the United States took on self-described "world responsibilities," and the simple ideological framework offered off-the-rack policies that could be applied anywhere in the world. If the Kremlin did not like it, it was almost certainly a good thing to do. Clinton is the first President in more than forty years without the ideological security blanket of the Cold War. But because of his experience and temperament and the pressures of domestic politics, he appears committed to a Fix America First policy through free trade - a policy that cannot work.

Clinton has not accurately assessed the most significant trends in world affairs; he has not sensibly set the nation's priorities; he has not grasped the challenges posed by political, economic, and military developments beyond our shores.

In the Cold War years, American Presidents were so obsessed with their grand design that they sacrificed to the fight against communism all sorts of important interests, including the economic health of the United States, the bedrock of any real security strategy. Yet without a clear sense of American priorities, an understanding of the limits of American power, and a clearer vision of the decent world order we seek, foreign and military policy will continue to be immobilized by obsolete Cold War assumptions.

To his credit, Clinton seems determined to sweep away Cold War debris where it is politically feasible to do so. There is still a chance that the Clinton Administration will ease the anachronistic and increasingly cruel embargo of Cuba. The President recognized Angola and ended U.S. support for the long war to unseat the government of that country. As with Angola, there are political and economic interests to be served by normalizing relations with Vietnam, and Clinton seems to be moving in that direction. He also played a constructive role, by threatening trade sanctions, in dissuading the Guatemalan army from openly taking power.

The President exercised leadership in mobilizing capital contributions for Russia. On humanitarian grounds alone, international financial support is justified, and anything that persuades large numbers of Russians that they have neither been defeated nor abandoned by the other great nations should reduce the danger of a xenophobic backlash. But the gifts come burdened with largely ideological "freemarket" ideas that produce immediate pain, and the untested shock treatments recommended by Western advisers have pushed Russia to civil war. Unwisely, Clinton chose to give Boris Yeltsin a blanket endorsement for his bloody silencing of the popularly elected Parliament and the political enemies who resorted to force against him. By supporting Yeltsin's acts of repression, Clinton not only made his own high-flown Wilsonian rhetoric about spreading democracy sound tinny, but he also risked fomenting anti-American sentiment in that nuclear-loaded, dissolving society.

In Haiti, the collapse of the U.S.-brokered accord between President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and leaders of the military coup that ousted him left the United States in a disastrous deadlock with the entrenched military regime there. From the start, Clinton pursued a weak and muddled diplomacy in Haiti, and he failed to rein in his own CIA, which systematically sabotaged his stated pro-Aristide policy.

Clinton's handling of the U.S. intervention in Somalia demonstrated the Administration's unconcealed ambivalence about playing a leadership role in messy situations far from our shores. The mishandling of the intervention not only damaged the credibility of the United States and the United Nations, but undermined the legitimacy of both to play an effective peacekeeping role in the future.

The most agonizing challenge came in Bosnia, "the problem from hell," as Secretary of State Warren Christopher called it. During the campaign and in his early days in the White House, Clinton strongly hinted that he would use force in Bosnia, but he withdrew the threat in the face of Serbian manipulation and defiance. He was right to insist that any larger military intervention into Bosnia be a genuinely multilateral operation, not a U.S.-organized attack under a U.N. fig leaf. He was right to be guided by the reluctance of European allies and to be influenced by the deep skepticism of the Pentagon in his decision not to commit major U.S. forces to the conflict.

But his confused and vacillating role flashed a green light for the destroyers of Bosnia. Clarity of goals, moral conviction, and a show of force early on might have made some difference. However, given the state of U.S. public opinion, the attitudes of the Pentagon, and the preoccupation with domestic problems in every industrial country, it seems hardly fair to heap the blame on Clinton. Still, he asked for the job, and the fact that no other world leader has a clearer idea on Bosnia does not wipe away this failure.

Similarly, on U.S. arms policy, Clinton has come up short. He is continuing to shrink military expenditures, but the new mission of the military remains unclear, and neither the size of the budget nor the projected roles for U.S. forces bear any reasonable relationship to the threats the nation faces.

If ever there were a time for coordinated policies to get the world economy moving and to head off trade wars, it is Clinton's time in the White House. It's the WORLD economy, stupid would be a good slogan were the Administration still in its cocky phase. But there is little in Clinton's experience to prepare him for the job. To orchestrate major changes in the way the global economy is organized requires clarity of purpose and fierce determination, and these are not exactly the character traits he has most convincingly exhibited.

Nation-states everywhere are not what they once were. National leaders are losing much of the control over their own territory because they must increasingly conform to the demands of the outside world. With the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement and, more broadly, as the organization of the world's work shifts, more and more of us - from janitors to CEOs of multinational corporations - are waking up to the fact that we are swimming in a global labor pool.

Powerful business enterprises that routinely operate across borders are linking far-flung pieces of territory into a new world economy that bypasses all sorts of established political arrangements and conventions. The outsiders are already inside the gates.

For the United States, as for every other country, the price of economic integration has been a loss of political autonomy. The managers of the U.S. economy used to assume that because America was the flagship of the world economy - indeed, the printer and prime manager of the world's reserve currency - the country was relatively free to tune its own economy by raising and lowering taxes and adjusting interest rates. But since the 1980s, the United States has lost much of its influence over its major competitors, which no longer act as if they need a protector.

The leaders of Britain, Germany, Japan, Italy, and the other major industrial countries also face severe domestic political problems. As the Twentieth Century draws to a close, much of the official truth that sustained and guided governments for fifty years or more has collapsed and new political visions are in short supply.

Like Leninism, Keynesianism was premised on the idea that national economies were real. Within the borders of a nation-state - at least within militarily powerful, advanced industrial nations - the state could provide economic stability, development, and social progress. But in the new global environment, what it takes to achieve stability and growth without destroying people. crushing their spirit, or wrecking the environment is not yet clear. Political programs can stimulate short-term booms, but all across the spectrum long-term economic management has become a mystery since nothing quite works as theory prescribes.

In large measure this crisis is the result of growing tension between the most powerful economic units: global corporations, which are able to exploit their mobility and to distance themselves from the problems of any piece of real estate anywhere, and local businesspeople, workers, and citizens, who are rooted in a particular place.

Clinton needs to begin a serious dialogue with the American people bout the relationship between global economic changes and practical political choices in the United States. A new vision of the world we seek must rest on a shared understanding of what is happening around us. Ideological talk about how "free markets" guarantee "democracy" (without defining either) is no help. As in the Cold War, the pressures to make things clearer than truth and to capture subtle realities in sound bites can produce hysteria or despair. For instance, Clinton could have used the NAFTA debate to open a discussion for dealing with the disparities between rich and poor - disparities that will mean the loss of more good jobs in the United States. But he chose to side with the very forces that are enlarging those disparities.

Without communicating at least the contours of a vision based on an understanding of new global realities, Clinton will not have the political support to do more than react to the agendas of those political figures across the world whom the U.S. Government calls upstarts, troublemakers, and terrorists. And the increasing unease Americans feel about the chaotic new world still will be exploited by the Doles, Perots, Nunns, and Kemps who are waiting to wrest the banner of change from a floundering President.

In my view, there are two top foreign-policy priorities the President needs to pursue in order to carry out the positive domestic changes he promised in the 1992 campaign:

First, he must seek reduction of global arms stockpiles and control of arms traffic. The spread of both nuclear and conventional weapons around the world is making the planet ungovernable because over-armed societies that are coming apart are too dangerous and expensive to police. In the disorderly transition to a new post-Cold War international system, the risks of nuclear Armageddon appear to be less, but so also are the constraints on acquiring nuclear weapons and resorting to nuclear diplomacy. A radical approach to disarmament is needed to stop the destruction that is tearing nations apart and fueling multiple arms races in Asia and elsewhere. A much more rapid global shrinking of military budgets is essential if the U.S. military budget is to come down enough to make public funds available for the genuine national-security needs Clinton talked about in the campaign - ending the life-threatening poverty of millions of American children, rebuilding decaying cities, and creating real opportunities for the millions of Americans who are falling victim to the new globalized economy.

The second priority is a new Bretton Woods Agreement that would guarantee basic worker rights, environmental protection, and other international commitments to stop the downward pressure on U.S. wages and working conditions.

International cooperation to make tax-avoidance more difficult and collective efforts to regulate the trillions of dollars of global money that slosh back and forth are essential if the global corporations that increasingly shape the new world order are to be made accountable to democratic authority.

Of course no national leader by himself can supply the energy to bring about the cultural shift needed to take on these multiple global crises. He could, however, marshal the still formidable power and reach of the United States to begin the task. But first he would need to know where he wants to go.

Richard J. Barnet is a senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D. C. This article is adapted from "State of the Union 1994," edited by Richard Caplan and John Feffer, used by permission of Westview Press in Boulder, Colorado. In February, Barnet's latest book (with John Cavanagh), "Global Dreams: Imperial Corporations and the New World Order," will be published by Simon & Schuster.
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Title Annotation:Clinton Doctrine; foreign policy
Author:Barnet, Richard J.
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jan 1, 1994
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