From Balance Of Power To Balance Of Trade

Bill Clinton's foreign policy views barely registered on America's political radar screen during the Presidential campaign. But as his Presidency moves into its second month, Clinton's international vision is coming into sharper focus. And it's increasingly clear that his Administration will practice a fundamentally different kind of foreign policy from its two predecessors. While Ronald Reagan and George Bush were devotees of realpolitik, Bill Clinton's guiding principle is econopolitik. For the first time since World War II, traditional geopolitics is taking a backseat to economics in U.S. foreign policy.

The shift resonated in Clinton's Feb. 26 address on foreign policy at American University. Instead of dwelling on security issues, Clinton used his first international policy speech as President to urge the strengthening of U.S. global economic leadership. The only traditional foreign policy plank in the Administration's five-point plan was its support for democracy in Russia, and even that ranked last. "It's Clinton's way of signaling that we are in a new era," says Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a Democratic think tank. "The primary focus of his foreign policy will be revitalizing global economic growth while we rebuild our domestic economy."

Mindful of the drubbing Bush took for seeming preoccupied with foreign policy, Clinton has delegated international affairs to top aides. He let Secretary of State Warren Christopher have the spotlight on Feb. 10 to unveil the Administration's new Bosnia policy. Formal announcement of the U.S. humanitarian airdrop came in a written statement.

HOLDING THE FORT. Clinton's overriding focus on winning domestic backing for his deficit-reduction and fiscal-stimulus package is a key reason he has stepped back from campaign pledges to get the arms embargo on Bosnia lifted, contenting himself with an airdrop of questionable effect. Pressing for a consensus on taking more forceful action would have been divisive. "With his mind 99% focused on domestic economics, [Clinton] is just trying to hold the fort for now" in foreign policy, says historian Michael R. Beschloss.

Similarly, economic considerations are prompting Clinton to rethink his rhetoric on human rights. While criticizing Beijing's abuses, for example, Clinton has hinted he wants to avoid legislation tying renewal of China's trade privileges to its record on human rights and arms sales. The reason: A confrontation could cost U.S. companies billions in sales.

The Clinton Administration's trade policy makes clear just how much of a driving force economics is to the White House. Exports are integral to Clinton's plan to create high-paying jobs and boost American prosperity. And Clintonites are brandishing a big stick to force trading partners to open their markets. They have lashed out at European subsidies that keep Airbus Industrie aloft and warned Japan that its trade surplus is intolerable. U.S. officials say they don't want to resort to retaliation any more than the reticent Bush did. But that doesn't mean they won't. Says a senior Clinton Administration official, "there's more willingness to risk a short-term cost for a long-term gain" to open markets.

HARD CHOICES. At a time when a major military threat seems remote, Clinton's fixation on economic policy makes sense. The challenge will be to keep economic nationalism from getting out of hand. Clinton has tempered his muscular trade policy with a call to Americans to "compete, not retreat" behind protectionist walls. But the approach may yet backfire if, for example, Washington gives its trading partners reason to restrict the flow of U.S. exports.

Clinton also could be forced to ditch his laser-like focus on economic issues if genuine crises erupt. If the Bosnian airdrop is deemed ineffective, Clinton will face hard choices about whether to deepen U.S. military involvement. Another potential crisis that could divert attention would be provocative moves by Iraq. And eventually, he will have to spend precious political capital dealing with a series of tough issues with Russia, such as increased U.S. assistance. Clinton meets President Boris N. Yeltsin on Apr. 4 and has planned sessions with several other world leaders before and shortly thereafter.

For now, Europeans and Asians are comfortable with Clinton's focus on getting the U.S. fiscal house in order, which many regard as long overdue. But it's a question of balance. If Clinton pushes his economic agenda too far while easing back on traditional U.S. security roles, that will rattle the allies. The Clintonites feel they occupy the moral high ground in G-7 talks because of the tough medicine they are proposing at home. They hope to leverage their position, stepping up pressure on Japan and Germany to reinvigorate their economies. Washington's tough posturing in trade talks also has Europeans on edge. "The U.S. is running around breaking a lot of porcelain, and that will make [GATT] negotiations more difficult," says Bernhard May, senior researcher at the German Foreign Policy Society.

At home, Clinton's rejection of protectionism, coupled with tough talk about opening markets, plays favorably to American trade schizophrenia. Hewing to certain Bush foreign policies elsewhere is politically astute, too. The overwhelming U.S. preoccupation is economic growth, but Americans don't want to simply walk away from international commitments. So while Clinton's econopolitik may give U.S. allies the jitters, he is reading his home audience well.

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