WASHINGTON — When the history of the Clinton administration is written, the dominant figure for foreign policy will no doubt be national security advisor Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, the senior official who most closely reflects the beliefs and instincts of the president he serves.
Over the last seven years, none of President Clinton's other top foreign policy aides has turned out to be so influential. Anthony Lake, Clinton's first national security advisor, and Warren Christopher, his first secretary of State, proved more fervent in their Wilsonian idealism and less attuned to Clinton's commercial diplomacy. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright often seems more powerful on television or giving speeches than she is in the administration's internal decision-making.
So when Berger sets out in greater detail than ever before his views about America's role in the world, it's an event worthy of critical scrutiny.
In a notably combative speech last Thursday, Berger--stung by the Senate's rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty--accused the administration's opponents of trying to withdraw from the world.
"The internationalist consensus that has prevailed in this country for more than 50 years is being challenged today by a new isolationism, heard and felt particularly in the Congress," he said. The new isolationists, he asserted, "believe in a survivalist foreign policy--build a fortified fence around America, and retreat behind it."
To Berger's credit, he did not attempt to write off the Republican opponents of the test ban treaty as motivated by partisanship. Instead, he observed, accurately, that the vote reflected changing ideas in the Senate about U.S. foreign policy--in particular, an increasing reluctance to join in international treaties or to alter U.S. policy to take into account the views of our allies.
Some of Berger's criticisms were on the mark--such as the trenchant observation that Congress, in its drive to slash the foreign policy budget, now seems to be operating on the principle of "billions for defense, but hardly a penny for prevention."
At the same time, Berger's attack on his critics was misleading.
He seemed to brand all the opponents of the test ban treaty as "isolationists." But among those who voted against the treaty were Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Richard G. Lugar of Indiana and Charles Hagel of Nebraska. Joining them on the sidelines was former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger. All have been staunch proponents of a strong American role in the world.
It might have been closer to the truth to call such opponents "unilateralists." They don't believe America should retreat from the world, but rather that it should rely above all on its own strength rather than on working in concert with other countries.
Berger now amiably concedes this point. "There are different words one can use," he said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "I think there are elements of isolationism and unilateralism" in the opposition to the test ban treaty.
However, the national security advisor continued, "I think both [schools of thought] run aground on the same shoals--the idea that the United States, by its strength, can go it alone, either by withdrawing or by acting unilaterally."
Berger seems to hope that he will galvanize American public opinion to rush to the administration's support. It's not clear that he will succeed.
Walter Russell Mead, a scholar who is writing a book on the intellectual origins of American foreign policy, suggests that the Clinton administration has failed to understand the other, deeper currents under the Senate vote against the test ban treaty. "It is one more sign that the Cold War coalition in American politics is coming apart," Mead said.
Mead notes that there has been a populist component within U.S. foreign policy--a consistent strain of thought that dates to the era of President Andrew Jackson. During the Cold War, American populism, which viewed the Soviet Union as the Evil Empire, joined hands with America's elites, which sought to prevent the Soviet Union from dominating Europe or Asia. The result was a broad consensus in support of America's international role.
But now, Mead observes, American populism no longer automatically endorses such an active role overseas. "The administration's ambition of building a commercial and democratic world order is not at all one that [American populists] support," Mead said.
In last week's speech, Berger seemed to admit, fleetingly, to the difficulty of winning support for Clinton's foreign policy. He said Clinton had instructed his foreign policy team to "take the case for American engagement . . . to the heartland of America." And so, Berger joked, "we tried that at Ohio State."
That was a reference to the nationally publicized debacle in February 1998, in which Berger, Albright and Defense Secretary William S. Cohen tried to defend the administration's Iraq policy, and instead were besieged by questions about its wisdom.
Berger clearly believes in the wisdom of his campaign against the "new isolationism." The danger is that the administration will carry out this campaign in such a way that it becomes increasingly isolated, both from Congress and from the American public it needs to persuade.
Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday.