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National Perspective | INTERNATIONAL OUTLOOK

Clinton World Agenda Lacks High Drama

November 04, 1998|JIM MANN

WASHINGTON — What can we expect in U.S. foreign policy during President Clinton's last two years in the White House? What will his administration do with its final opportunity to make a lasting mark on America's relations with the rest of the world?

American presidents have frequently taken advantage of the months after midterm congressional elections to press ahead with important initiatives overseas. With one political campaign over and the next one still two years away, they can temporarily set aside the pressures of domestic politics.

Soon after the congressional elections of 1978, President Carter established diplomatic relations with China, an action that had been postponed as too politically sensitive for the previous half-decade. During President Reagan's final two years in office, he made spectacular breakthroughs on arms control with the Soviet Union.

So if Clinton has foreign policy goals he wants to achieve before leaving office, now's the time.

A speech last week by National Security Advisor Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger and an interview with another senior administration official provided the outlines of Clinton's agenda in dealing with the world from now until he leaves office.

The list is noteworthy mostly for containing few surprises. The Clinton team doesn't seem to envision dramatic initiatives such as Carter's move to recognize China. There is not much talk, for example, of big changes in policy toward Cuba or Iran. In general, the administration is hoping to keep moving on goals it already has set out.

Berger's speech focused on five subjects: Europe, Asia, the Middle East, terrorism and the global financial crisis. Another senior official offered a similar list and added one item: an intensive American drive to win approval of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

In Europe, the administration's broad aim is to stabilize the continent by strengthening NATO and opening the way for it to take on new missions. Administration officials portray the recent crisis in Kosovo as a big step toward this goal.

"It ain't your father's NATO," Deputy National Security Advisor James Steinberg observed recently. At the NATO summit meeting next April, administration officials plan to propose a new strategic concept for NATO, giving the alliance a role in stopping weapons of mass destruction.

In Asia, the administration wants to bolster the relationship with Beijing forged during the summits of the last two years. One administration official spoke of the strategic importance of avoiding the twin dangers of "a too-strong China or a too-weak China."

The main question for the next two years is whether the administration will try to integrate China into the international trading system with a deal to bring it into the World Trade Organization. Clinton officials would like to do this but suggest that if a WTO deal isn't possible, they hope to work out some other new trade agreement with Beijing. At present, America's trade deficit with China is about $60 billion a year.

The administration also knows it will have to find a way to deal with North Korea. A senior U.S. official said he feels the possibility of a new war on the Korean Peninsula is the most dangerous problem America faces.

Yet administration officials seem to believe they will be able somehow to persuade (or bribe) North Korea to curb its intermittent threats to develop nuclear weapons and the missiles with which to deliver them.

The main objective in the Middle East, of course, will be to work out a final settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.

To do that, the administration will have to figure out how to dissuade Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from unilaterally declaring a Palestinian state next May, the deadline envisioned by earlier peace accords. Moreover, the Clinton team hopes to revive the long-stalled negotiations between Israel and Syria.

On terrorism, Berger hinted in his speech that there could be more missile strikes, such as the ones directed at Osama bin Laden last August. He said the United States would, "when appropriate, [take] military action to damage terrorist infrastructures and their confidence that they can act with impunity."

And on the global economy, Clinton already has won international support for measures to help weaker economies combat capital outflows.

This agenda is largely the work of day-to-day managers, not visionaries. It offers little to those who had hoped that Clinton would reorient American foreign policy by making dramatic reductions in the defense budget.

"It would be nice to think they would deal with the problems left over from the Cold War, like the need for military restructuring and Cuba," said Bob Borosage, director of the Campaign for America's Future. "But he's too weak."

Clinton will probably find it hard to stick to even this relatively modest agenda. The administration could be distracted by some prolonged foreign policy crisis, such as a showdown with Iraq or North Korea, or major economic and political upheaval in Russia.

As their tenure in the White House begins to dwindle, American presidents often narrow their sights, fixing on a single goal or two. For Clinton, that will probably be peace in the Middle East.

"This president, like Jimmy Carter before him, has acquired a sense of paternity toward the peace process," observed Richard Solomon, president of the U.S. Institute for Peace. "That's an area where he'll want to be active, and he's also looking ahead to helping Al Gore in the year 2000" with a Mideast breakthrough.

In short: Don't expect many surprises from Clinton foreign policy over the next two years. And keep an eye on the Middle East.

Jim Mann's column appears here on Wednesdays.

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