NEW YORK — Behind Secretary of State Warren Christopher's political mugging at the hands of the Chinese government last week is a foreign policy at war with itself. On one side is the Clinton Administra tion's desire to protect human rights. On the other is its quest to open up foreign markets for U.S. business. Unhappily for Christopher, the Chinese know that Bill Clinton can't have it both ways.
The Clinton team's troubles with China are symptomatic of a broader failure to develop a role for the United States in the post-Cold War world. As a result, it remains trapped in old modes of strategic thinking, which adds to its difficulties in Haiti, Bosnia and Somalia. The absence of a new vision is also a main reason for the Administration's inability to win lasting public support for bold global initiatives.
Since the early days of his presidential candidacy, Clinton's positions on foreign policy have reflected an uneasy mix of political calculations, intellectual influences and experiences as a state governor. His political advisers have always seen foreign policy as a potentially dangerous diversion from domestic matters. This explains Clinton's reluctance, as candidate and President, to focus on international issues. On those occasions when he has outlined his vision of the world and America's place in it, two themes have emerged, each reflecting a crucial but strikingly different set of influences on his approach to foreign policy.
The overarching rhetorical theme in Clinton's major foreign-policy addresses--first elaborated in a speech at Georgetown University, in December, 1991--has been a call for a renewed U.S. commitment to global engagement. We must, he then declared, "lead the world that we have done so much to create." America's goal, he told the United Nation's last fall, "is to expand and strengthen the world's community of market-based democracies."
This neo-Wilsonian vision has deep roots in America's liberal internationalist past. It combines a strong belief in the power of the United States to shape the world with a deep and abiding faith that it can--and will--do so in a way that serves the larger interests of both America and the world. For the grandsons of the wise men who orchestrated the nation's rise to global pre-eminence, this is an appealing, Kennedyesque vision.
All Clinton's boldest positions--his commitment to defend Bosnia against Serbian aggression, to restore democracy in Haiti and in the former Soviet Union, to create political order in Somalia and to protect human rights in China--flow from this vision. But it is doubtful that Clinton is as personally committed to reviving liberal internationalism as are his chief foreign-policy advisers, especially National Security Council Adviser W. Anthony Lake. This may explain why Clinton has been quick to drop the foreign-policy promises he made during the campaign once it becomes clear that carrying them out could prove costly.
The second recurring theme in Clinton's foreign-policy addresses has been the idea that national security now revolves around economics and its corollary that our principal global objective should be to improve the international competitiveness of the U.S. economy and vigorously promote U.S. economic interests abroad, especially exports. This view is an article of faith among many of the academics, such as Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich, who have been part of Clinton's intellectual circle since his days at Oxford. It is also much more compatible with the President's domestic agenda and his political interests.
This geo-economic perspective also closely parallels the thinking of most U.S. governors, and, his Vietnam-era student days aside, Clinton's most formative international experiences occurred while he was a young governor trying to boost Arkansas' economy by promoting state exports and attracting foreign investors.
The President's speech writers have made a determined effort to reconcile his liberal internationalism and economic boosterism by arguing that a prosperous, internationally competitive national economy is a precondition for global leadership. At one level, they are right. Economic prosperity did make it possible for Washington to pursue an ambitious international agenda from the late 1940s through the 1960s. At another level, however, this argument is either self-deluding or mere sophistry.
The goal of the competitiveness crowd is not to build a more democratic world order. Rather, it is to ensure that Americans do not lose out to Asians and Europeans in the increasingly fierce competition for global markets. In light of this reality, it is naive to believe that other nations will eagerly follow Clinton's political lead while ex-Gov. Clinton busily courts economic partners and squeezes economic rivals. Therein lies the real reason for Beijing's chilliness.