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The White Man Who Brings Diversity to Clinton's Foreign-Policy Team : Appointments: A friend of the President, Talbott comes from a generation unburdened by the past and old turf wars. But is there life beyond Russia?

January 09, 1994|Michael Clough | Michael Cough is a senior fellow at the Council on foreign Relations and co-chairman of New American Global Dialogue, a Stanley foundation foreign-policy program

NEW YORK — The appointment of Strobe Talbott as deputy secretary of state could have a decisive impact on the future of U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, Talbott, a close friend of President Bill Clinton and a highly regarded young member of the club that has shaped U.S. relations with the world for 50 years, may be positioned to solve the "vision" problem that has bedeviled the Administration. Whether Secretary of State Warren Christopher's new deputy--and likely successor--lives up to this high expectation will largely depend on his ability to transcend his Establishment roots and expand his horizons beyond Russia.

Talbott's predecessor, Clifton Wharton, the African-American educator and administrator who resigned under pressure late last year, was the wrong man in the wrong spot at the wrong time. Clinton and his political advisers pressed Christopher to make the Wharton appointment because they believed that an African-American face had to be in the picture when Clinton announced his foreign-policy team. Also, pressure from women's groups for an additional female Cabinet member had forced them to give the job that they had wanted to give to Wharton--the U.S. ambassadorship to the United Nations--to Madeleine Albright. If the crisis in Somalia had not exploded in the way that it did, Wharton, who had no responsibility for the policy, would probably be sitting in his seventh-floor office at the State Department today, ruminating over plans to reorganize the Agency for International Development.

One consequence of this sad affair is that it could bolster the arguments of conservatives and others who contend that the Administration's push for diversity has lowered standards and undermined effective government. If Talbott succeeds, his success will inevitably be contrasted with memories of Wharton's imputed failure and used as an argument against bowing to future pressure for diversity. This would be unfortunate.

Now, more than ever, Washington needs the insights and unconventional thinking that genuine diversity can provide. But a true commitment to diversity must go beyond questions of race and gender. It requires sensitivity to background, life experience and perspective, as well as anatomy and complexion.

Judged by these criteria, the Clinton foreign-policy team is strikingly monolithic. Some of its principal figures have been close friends for nearly 30 years; most served in the Foreign Service at one time or another; most received degrees from Harvard, Yale, Princeton or Columbia, and almost all were officials in the Carter Administration. They represent the best and brightest of the liberal wing of the foreign-policy Establishment, but their boldness has been tempered by 12 years of reflecting on the perceived failures of their efforts to reform U.S. foreign policy during the Carter era.

They now strongly believe that the United States needs a new foreign-policy consensus, one that can prevent the kinds of bitter ideological battles that divided the Carter Administration and poisoned the domestic foreign-policy debate during the Reagan era. But it is not clear, given their remarkably uniform backgrounds and narrow range of experience, that this team understands America well enough to develop a global vision that can gain the public's confidence, much less capture its imagination.

An African-American who recognizes the concerns that caused the Congressional Black Caucus to overwhelmingly oppose the North American Free Trade Agreement could provide some of the diversity that the Administration needs. An Asian-American who appreciates the importance of the personal networks that still bind many Asian-Americans to their former homelands would add an important voice to policy formation.

But the Administration also needs the diversity of individuals, irrespective of race or gender, who did not attend elite Eastern universities with an eye constantly fixed on a career in politics and government; of individuals who have spent most of their professional lives toiling in non-governmental sectors, of individuals who run export businesses and who had to find ways to break into closed markets. Despite their race, gender and talent, Wharton and the handful of other minorities and women who have been appointed to senior foreign-policy positions by Clinton do not offer this kind of diversity. Paradoxically, Talbott could take the lead in creating an Administration and, more important, a new American foreign-policy community that can accommodate this kind of diversity.

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