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Commentary: The Price Of America's Foreign Policy Muddle (Int'l Edition)

International -- Intl' Business: COMMENTARY


Republicans on Capitol Hill are about to achieve the impossible: making so many foreign policy flubs that even President Clinton looks good. First, the new Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), led an attempt to force foreign companies to choose between doing business in the U.S. or Cuba. Then, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who is more of an internationalist than many of his colleagues, called for diplomatic recognition of Taiwan--only to back off sheepishly days later. Now, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) has pushed a bill through the Senate calling for the U.S. to break the arms embargo on Bosnia. While not an unreasonable idea, if accomplished unilaterally, it could further divide the West, leading to more chaos and carnage in the Balkans.

BLUSTER. President Clinton has himself to blame for all this congressional freelancing on foreign policy. Sure, he has had some successes, such as restoring a semblance of democracy to Haiti and the Mexico bailout. But on the larger world stage, his waffling has left most everybody confused. That has created a leadership vacuum--which the GOP is filling, however


The U.S. already is paying a price for its incoherent strategy in dealing with the rest of the world. In fact, in those areas where real U.S. interests are at stake, things are slipping badly. European leaders are increasingly reluctant to line up behind U.S. initiatives such as the recent sanctions on Iran. NATO is in trouble. China's leaders seem much more willing to test U.S. resolve on human rights and to throw their weight around on issues like Taiwan. And the Administration's blustering approach in the recent auto talks has badly frayed relations with Japan for little real gain.

Worse, the political jockeying has made any serious debate on American foreign policy impossible. Clinton and the Republican leadership need to address fundamental questions: What are America's strategic interests in the 21st century? And how should Washington defend them?

But addressing such weighty issues is of little practical value for politicians, especially with a Presidential election approaching. Candidates "can't stand up and say, `I'm not entirely certain what our role in the world is today,"' says Michael W. Clough, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. But Clough adds: "That's probably the only honest answer."

A further source of confusion is the deep foreign policy split within the ranks of Republicans. GOP moderates agree with Democrats on many issues. Both favor a cautious activism in places ranging from the former Soviet Union to China. But many of the 73 Republican congressmen elected in 1994 are strongly isolationist. Wary of foreign entanglements, they are slashing foreign aid to curb the deficit. Rand Corp. senior social scientist Francis Fukuyama calls their approach "isolationism by cheapness." But it could backfire if the U.S. abdicates its global responsibility. After all, foreign aid is a useful way "to bribe other countries to behave in ways that suit your foreign policy," Fukuyama says. "The Republicans are slitting their own throats."

If there is any hope here, it is that despite all the bomb-throwing, Gingrich & Co. don't want foreign policy to go too far off the rails. They don't want to be blamed for losing Russia or totally alienating the Chinese. For instance, House Republicans ranted and raved about wanting to cut aid to the former Soviet Union but, to the pleasant surprise of Administration foreign aid officials, wound up only paring the program from $788 million to $643 million--leaving a substantial program.

It is even possible that Gingrich and some Democrats could work out a pragmatic approach to the world, in which business dealings and communications links would fill some of the void left by reduced aid and military budgets. Gingrich, who spent much of his youth on military bases in Germany, is a lot more attuned to international affairs than one might think. For instance, unlike many of his colleagues, he would like the North American Free Trade Agreement quickly extended to Chile.

As the Presidential campaign heats up, however, prepare for more cacophony than consensus from Washington. Clinton and his shaky foreign policy team will likely leave the Republicans too many tempting openings to score political points. That could lead to paralysis--bad news for America's friends and good news for its enemies.By Stan Crock

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