Foreign Policy: Once More, With Vision

Clinton must develop a strategy beyond crisis management

From the get-go, Bill Clinton has been a reluctant foreign policy President. He won't have that luxury any longer. Too often guided by domestic political concerns in his first term, the President has made trade and security decisions that will dog him in his second.

A new team will be in place, with Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher and Defense Secretary William J. Perry expected to depart. But experts worry that Clinton--no matter who his advisers--has never shown a coherent vision for coping with global trouble. "I don't believe Clinton has shown the ability to adopt integrated strategies," says Robert B. Zoellick, a Bush Administration State Dept. official.

LOSER? That's worrisome, because trouble spots abound. Administration efforts to preserve the fragile Middle East peace accord have been hurt by the Likud government's hawkish stands. Bosnia could erupt in violence again. Russian nationalism is on the rise, in part because of an Administration campaign to expand NATO to former Warsaw Pact countries. The Korean peninsula is a powder keg. And the Clintonites' pragmatic China policy has shown little in the way of results.

Even the Administration's one bright spot--its push to elevate economic security issues--is in trouble. Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin's effort to drive down the yen could turn out to be a loser now that Japan's Ministry of Finance is gearing up the export machine again. And with Mexico's trade surplus with the U.S. headed toward $16 billion, efforts to expand the North American Free Trade Agreement to the rest of the Western hemisphere are in jeopardy. The Clintonites' ambitious plans to craft a free-trade zone in Asia also are going nowhere. The reason: Partisan squabbling has blocked renewal of the President's "fast-track authority," which would allow him to reach trade deals with minimal congressional interference.

Overseas, meanwhile, relations with traditional U.S. allies are testy. The White House outraged the Europeans and Canadians by threatening sanctions against foreign companies that do business in Cuba or invest in the oil industries of Libya and Iran--efforts viewed as plays to Cuban-American and Jewish voters. French President Jacques Chirac's pro-Palestinian stand also could complicate peace talks as the most explosive issues are negotiated: the status of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Says a European Union official: "There is a tendency [in the Clinton Administration] to conduct foreign policy by various interest groups, and that is worrisome."

The U.S. and the Europeans are more in sync on NATO expansion, but haggling remains over the crafting of a new relationship with Russia. Even if pro-Western President Boris Yeltsin fully recovers from heart surgery, Moscow will try to exact a high price for acquiescing. The key will be a charter that NATO and Russia will negotiate to formalize Moscow's place on the 21st century European military map. Russia will argue for a seat on NATO's most key committees--a prospect that makes the Clintonites queasy. "The question is how much meat the West will put into it, and how much meatlessness the Russians are prepared to accept," says Stephen R. Sestanovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

No problem looms larger on Clinton's radar screen than China. The swelling Sino-U.S. trade deficit could hit $40 billion this year and may soon top the U.S. deficit with Japan. U.S. negotiators, meanwhile, are embroiled in contentious talks with Beijing over conditions for China's entry to the World Trade Organization. The U.S. is pressing China to end tariffs and quotas, and open up such key sectors as telecommunications and autos. In exchange, Washington will drop its annual renewal of most-favored-nation (MFN) trade status for Beijing. The Administration hopes a deal can be pulled together by next summer--in time for a tentatively scheduled Clinton summit with Chinese President Jiang Zemin in the U.S.

That may prove wishful thinking. Beijing so far is resisting U.S. pressure to dismantle its protectionist policies. And Congress may refuse to grant China permanent MFN, especially if Beijing appears to be bullying Hong Kong, which reverts to Chinese control on July 1. Even if a trade deal is reached, Christopher's successor will have to tackle disputes over human rights, nuclear proliferation, and weapons sales. Among the candidates for the Cabinet post are U.N. Ambassador Madeleine K. Albright and former Senator George J. Mitchell (D-Me.), both outspoken critics of China's human-rights record.

Given all that, the Clintonites had best devise a strategic plan for foreign policy pronto. Otherwise, the President's second term could be one long course in international crisis management.

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