WASHINGTON — The election campaign that ends today may be remembered as a time when the Cold Economy replaced the Cold War as the global issue closest to voters' fears and hopes. For the next President and his lieutenants in the State Department, the significance will be profound.
More than at any time since World War II, economic concerns are likely to compete with military ones as the new Administration conducts its foreign policy, analysts say. The state of the global economy, high-stakes trade negotiations and the pressing needs of Eastern Europe all are key items on the next Administration's agenda--whoever wins the election.
"The new secretary of state's first trip isn't going to be to Jerusalem or Damascus," said Steven L. Spiegel, a professor of political science at UCLA. "It's going to be to Tokyo or Europe, and it will be about economic matters."
The growing linkage between foreign policy and economic reality can be traced to pressures at home and overseas. Prolonged U.S. economic sluggishness has sent shivers through the labor force and electorate, prompting one of the most inward-looking presidential campaigns in recent history and unleashing new fears about the impact of the global economy on U.S. jobs.
Moreover, the huge federal budget deficit threatens the nation's ability to conduct an expensive foreign policy, to play a leading role in helping the Third World and to guide the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe into Western economic systems. America's ability to negotiate treaties from a position of strength relies in large measure on its continued wealth and vibrant markets.
Already "the United States is perilously close to being unable to play a serious role--let alone a leading one--in a growing number of global issues," argued C. Fred Bergsten, director of Washington's Institute for International Economics, in Foreign Policy magazine earlier this year. He cited support for economic reform and democracy in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union as an example. "Further erosion of America's economic position will invite increasing exasperation and even disdain from other major countries," Bergsten wrote.
Unlike his predecessors, the next President will face no single, clear-cut enemy, such as the Soviet "evil empire," a threat easily grasped by the American public. Such fears created widespread support for a strategy of containing Soviet influence, an overriding U.S. priority for decades. The next Administration, however, will face an era of economic conflict for which there is no single, agreed-upon strategy.
"I think containment has been replaced by competitiveness," Spiegel said. "If there's an overarching theme of foreign policy emerging for the next Administration, that's it."
Nobody is suggesting that U.S. military concerns have vanished. Proliferation of nuclear weapons, emerging nationalism and incendiary conflicts in the Balkans and former Soviet Union are just a few of the ongoing perils. Moreover, the importance of economic power is not a new discovery; America's superpower status always depended on it.
Still, economic and foreign affairs seem to be fusing in a way that will affect a range of policy decisions in the next Administration, analysts maintain.
The presidential campaign offered some hint of the changing situation, particularly the public's growing expectation that foreign affairs offer a domestic payoff. George Bush, who had been citing the need for America to be an "economic superpower," announced a North American Free Trade Agreement and promoted it as a new source of job growth. That prompted visions from rival Ross Perot of "a giant sucking sound" as older U.S. manufacturing jobs are pulled south of the border.
Bill Clinton, meanwhile, repeated the theme that the United States needs to get its domestic house in order. "We're living in a new world after the Cold War," the Democratic candidate declared during a presidential debate--a world that demands "a commitment to invest in American jobs and American education, controlling American health care costs and bringing the American people together."
Although Bush and Clinton have both rejected isolationism, some analysts have expressed fears that the nation may head back toward its older, inward-looking ways.
Indeed, strains of isolationism have never vanished entirely from the United States--a nation where the song "I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier" was a big hit before World War I.
Today, a long catalogue of factors make a return to isolationism unlikely. But some of these same factors suggest a foreign policy that is nevertheless more concerned with the U.S. economy than it used to be.