Bill Clinton, Foreign Policy President

Bill Clinton's whirlwind schedule in New York signaled his unlikely transformation into a foreign policy President. On Oct. 22, the domestic policy maven addressed an unprecedented meeting of more than 140 world leaders gathered in the cavernous U.N. General Assembly Hall to celebrate the U.N.'s 50th anniversary. Then came an upbeat round of tte-a-ttes with heads of state, from Russia's Boris Yeltsin and China's Jiang Zemin to Ethiopia's Meles Zenawi and Slovenia's Janez Drnovsek.

The gabfest comes on the heels of a string of successes for Clinton and his often maligned diplomatic team: the Sept. 28 Middle East peace pact, the Oct. 5 cease-fire breakthrough in Bosnia, and reduced tensions with China. After years of foreign-policy fumbling, the higher profile combined with a winning streak has boosted the stature of the President's team abroad. "Their general performance has enhanced the Administration's reputation," says one European diplomat.

OLD TEAM. But are these triumphs ephemeral? The same people who stumbled earlier--Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher and National Security Adviser Anthony Lake--remain in charge. The White House has no global framework for decision-making but does have a penchant for caving in to pressure. And earlier Administrations paved the way for Clinton successes on the Middle East, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and a world trade accord. "Where the structure and framework were set, the Administration hasn't done badly," sniffs Robert B. Zoellick, a former GOP State Dept. strategist.

The Administration concedes that its recent successful global gambits don't stem from any grand strategy. Decisions these days have to be made without "the kind of framework the bipolar cold-war world provided for so many years," Clinton said in an Oct. 6 speech. He called instead for a policy "based on trial and error and persistent experimentation."

Sometimes that strategy means sidestepping the real problems. There were smiles and embraces galore when Clinton greeted Yeltsin amidst the autumn-color pastels at Franklin D. Roosevelt's elegant summer White House in Hyde Park, N.Y. But the Oct. 23 feel-good meeting simply glossed over one of the most contentious and critical long-term issues: whether NATO should be expanded to include former Soviet satellites such as Poland.

Similarly, the rapprochement with China is paper-thin. At the last minute, the Chinese expressed outrage over the location of an Oct. 24 meeting--the New York Public Library, where an exhibit contained memorabilia dealing with the Tiananmen Square massacre. The site was switched to Lincoln Center. And all the two sides could announce was that they would keep talking.

To its credit, the White House does appear to be trying to exercise real leadership on the world stage--beyond just posturing to domestic constituencies. Like many Presidents, Clinton is finding that he has largely unfettered clout in world affairs--a welcome respite from the domestic agenda the Republicans now dominate. Despite the unpopularity of their course, for example, the Clintonites bypassed opposition in Congress to bail out Mexico during the peso crisis.

It was the Bosnia breakthrough, however, that made it clear that the Clintonites are determined to play a genuine leadership role--and are ready to do so by sending troops to follow through on the peace negotiations. "It would be ignoble to walk away," declares a senior Administration official.

To stay on a winning diplomatic path, the Administration will need a stiff spine for the issues it will face in the months ahead. It is demanding that China commit to more market-opening concessions before joining the World Trade Organization. The U.S. is pushing ahead with NATO expansion despite Moscow's strenuous opposition. If Quebec separatists win the independence vote on Oct. 30, there could be chaos on the northern border. And hotheads could derail the peace processes in the Middle East and Bosnia at any time. Putting troops in harm's way to implement any peace pact in Bosnia "may be the right thing to do substantively," frets Democratic consultant Mark S. Mellman. "But it's a very serious political risk."

NO WINNERS. Strangely enough, even if the Administration handles all these issues deftly, there may be little political payoff at home. A late-October USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll shows that despite the favorable foreign policy headlines, Clinton's approval rating, at 49%, is still below his 51% approval in May.

Republican and Democratic pollsters say foreign policy can be a big negative for Clinton if he looks feckless, but it can never be a big plus because voters have tuned out foreign policy. Hugh A. Johnson, chief investment officer of First Albany Cos., agrees. "The fact that he has been successful is probably a neutral," he says. "It's overwhelmed by the intense focus on domestic policy."

Many of the major international issues on the horizon no doubt will be minefields for an Administration focusing on reelection. But if it handles the challenges adroitly, it just might be able to remove doubts that Clinton, after long being at sea, has finally found his foreign policy legs.


-- Brokered Middle East peace pact

-- Achieved progress toward Bosnian cease-fire

-- Reduced tensions with China, Japan

-- Helped stabilize Mexico's financial system


-- Should NATO be expanded despite Russian objections?

-- Will rival armies derail Bosnian peace?

-- Should China be admitted to World Trade Organization?

-- Will Quebec independence spark a Canadian breakup?


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