IT'S ALL FOREIGN TO ME: Clinton Administration Foreign Policy

Thursday, July 23, 1998

Charles Hill, Senior Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Coit Blacker, Senior Fellow at the Institute for International Studies, Stanford University and Gloria Duffy, CEO of the Commonwealth Club of California, put the Clinton record to the test--how has the Administration fared on the host of threats and challenges facing the U.S.-- from Saddam Hussein to Boris Yeltsin, from China to India and Pakistan.

Recorded on Thursday, July 23, 1998

ROBINSON Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: President Clinton's foreign policy. But first, we take you back in time. 1980: Lake Placid, New York, the Winter Olympic Games and the miracle on ice. A team of American kids took on the overwhelmingly powerful Soviet hockey team and against all odds skated to victory. It was a victory of enormous symbolic importance. At the height of the Cold War, the Olympic games had become a propaganda battlefield between the two super powers. From hockey to foreign policy. In those days, the aim of American foreign policy was precisely that of Jim Craig, the goalie on that famous team: Stop the Soviets. Today, of course, the Cold War is over and the Soviet Union no longer even exists. So what is the aim of American foreign policy now? Do we even have a coherent foreign policy? With us, three guests.

Coit Blacker is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for International Studies. Gloria Duffy is CEO of the Commonwealth Club of California. Coit and Gloria both believe we do indeed have a coherent foreign policy and that President Clinton is doing just fine administering it. Charles Hill is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. Charlie begs to differ. He believes that we are simply stumbling from one foreign policy crisis to another. All agree that with the Cold War over, the United States faces a more complicated international environment. Terrorism, the Balkans, the Mideast - you get the idea.


ROBINSON During the Cold War, the overarching aim of American foreign policy was very clear: contain the Soviets. What is the overarching policy of Bill Clinton's administration? Charlie?

HILL We're getting onto about ten years after the end of the Cold War, so the post Cold War period really is over and what has happened in that period. It's an important question because after every major conflict for the modern era, going back 350 years, after the conflict there has been a major effort to put together a post-conflict structure of relations. I think George Bush took this very seriously as a responsibility when he came into office and had a couple of major accomplishments. One was a unified Germany inside NATO which is certainly not an easy thing to do.

ROBINSON But he was using NATO as a structure in which to exercise all the policy after the Cold War.

HILL Yes. But the question was will Germany be neutral if it's going to be together or will it be in NATO, and that's a big accomplishment. Then there was Desert Storm, and the coalition that he put together for that within U.N. resolutions authorizing it and the Soviets then and the U.S. on the same side, and he talked about this. Really, the new world order idea comes out of that, and he was aware of it. He was a foreign policy president. Then we get a president who is not a foreign policy president, but he's elected not to be one, so he turns to the domestic agenda and really, I think it all just fades away. So my answer to the question is there really is no foundation for American foreign policy right now. There is no structure of international relations, and historically, this is really significant. It's left us with a vacuum.

ROBINSON Chip, during the administration of William Jefferson Clinton, foreign policy has just faded away. You'll buy that?

BLACKER No, I don't.

ROBINSON Counter-argument?

BLACKER I think it's important here to distinguish between the organization of American foreign policy during the Cold War which is fundamentally a kind of anti-strategy. It's a negative strategy. It's to contain the Soviet menace.

ROBINSON It's to keep the bad guys back.

BLACKER Right. It's a negative posture, as opposed to what was an underlying positiveness, and that has been the same message throughout the twentieth century in American foreign policy, and this administration, in my view, has pursued a strategy that is entirely consistent with that message: peace, prosperity and freedom. Those are the three overarching themes that have informed American foreign policy, I would argue, since the turn of the last century. If you read for the kind of sub-text or substructure of U.S. policy toward the former Soviet Union, U.S. policy toward China, U.S. policy toward the Middle East, it's always built around those three themes.


DUFFY Well, I agree very much with Chip. This is a very different world than the Cold War world where there was a single over-riding concern and therefore a single rather simple strategy to deal with it. This is a very complex world with multiple threats, multiple challenges and multiple opportunities. So what you have today is a rather more complex foreign policy. There is a term which has been used, which is "engagement," which is in the same sense that containment was an overarching approach. Engagement is the overarching approach of the Clinton administration to engage in various ways to deal with the multiple complex threats and opportunities of this era.


ROBINSON Charlie, now is it ... The rules of the game may have changed after the Cold War, but for Bill Clinton, one thing remains the same: Saddam Hussein. How has President Clinton done on Iraq?

Case study: Iraq. After the Gulf War, the United Nations passed resolutions under which inspectors would go into Iraq and search around for chemical and other weapons of mass destruction and get the things destroyed. Worked reasonably well. In 1997, Iraq gets tough and says no U.N. inspectors in these eight sites which the Iraqis called presidential palaces. A crisis ensued, President Clinton took us to the brink of military action and then, at the last moment, accepted an agreement which had been worked out between Kofi Annan, the U.N. Secretary General, and Saddam Hussein. And the columnist William Safire said, "The hapless Clinton team says sternly it intends to test Saddam, but in reality, he has been testing us for years, steadily poking holes in our leaky containment." Was it a victory or a defeat? Charlie?

HILL Well, it's a defeat. Again and again, we see Saddam Hussein doing what essentially I think he must have learned from Radovan Karadzic in Bosnia. It's the same kind of thing. You do something abominable and wrongdoing and illegal and then the world mobilizes against you with the U.S. in the lead, you take a lot of territory, then the U.S. says, we're going to really punch you in the nose, then you back off a little bit and say, I've made a concession. The U.S. then stands down and then he says (Saddam or Karadzic), now what do I get for my concession?

ROBINSON Right. O.K., so bad guys have worked out that they take three steps forward and one step back and they can get away with it with Bill Clinton every time.

BLACKER Let's be clear about this. What's the goal here? The goal here is to complete a series of inspections in order to insure that Iraq is not in possession of weapons of mass destruction. So what I am interested in is not whether or not we actually used force against Saddam Hussein. I don't have any problem with using force if it's going to contribute to the goal. On the other hand, I would much prefer that that sanctions regime stay in place and that we be able to close the series of files that are still open on Saddam Hussein's weapons programs.

HILL Saddam Hussein has put us into a position where, by doing a few things, we're going to see in about a year those sanctions gone, and that's the problem. It's not the mechanisms and the experts, it is politically, we have mishandled both Iran and Iraq. We had a coalition of allies that backed us in this. They've moved away from this. The last time that we were coming up about to go to war with Saddam Hussein, we had lost largely the coalition. One of the reasons I think that we backed away back in March is because we didn't have the world with us any longer because, politically, diplomatically, primarily we had let that coalition just evaporate.

ROBINSON It looks to me as though Saddam Hussein has been able to shove us around and now the Iranians are tweaking our noses. Now I'm kind of responding at this as a level ... as a question of honor. They're pushing us around. But it occurs to me that substantively, if merely as a matter of symbolism they get to push us around, substantively we end up in trouble sooner or later. Is that not the case?

DUFFY I think there's a larger issue behind what you're talking about, and that is there are some very disturbing developments and trends with regard to the proliferation of nuclear weapons and technologies. The international communities and the U.S. capabilities to deal with those in an effective way are in question at this point. I think this really is....


ROBINSON Proliferation: a scary issue. Can the Clinton administration keep nuclear weapons from spreading to more and more countries? India tests a nuclear weapon, and a few days later, the Pakistanis test nuclear weapons and tensions are heightened on the Indian sub-continent which contains a billion people. It's a serious part of the world. Former Assistant Secretary of State Elliot Abrams: "It can be persuasively argued that our refusal (that is, the refusal of the Clinton administration) to apply sanctions when China sold missiles and nuclear technology to Pakistan and other countries is what led India to conduct its nuclear tests which in turn led to the Pakistani tests." Is Elliot wrong about that?

HILL I think that he's right. If you look at this really geo-strategically, take a look at how it would seem from, say, India or Israel's point of view. You've got Islamic fundamentalist countries, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, all across this area. From India's point of view, I think that the U.S. mishandling of the China relationship, which just goes on and on and on, they watched China supporting Pakistan's nuclear program. In another setting, which goes back to the question of American foreign policy after the Cold War, we see a lack of universality.

ROBINSON What do you mean by that?

HILL We see that the United States no longer - and this does go back to the Bush administration, too - has decided we're not going to really take top priority concern with problems around the world. We're going to look at just one, two, three and four. The rest can be handled by the bureaucracy. And south Asia didn't make the cut, so we have not been paying attention to India and to Pakistan the way we should have been.

BLACKER I think Charlie's right in the following sense that events on the sub-continent have tended to fall below our radar screen, but that is not unique to the Clinton administration. In fact, it goes back to the beginning of serious American foreign policy.


Let me make another point here. It's very dangerous, in my view, to come to the judgment that somehow, because an event happens in the world that is not to our liking, that somehow constitutes an a priori leadership failure on the part of the United States. The reason why, fundamentally, in my view, the Indians tested nuclear weapons is because Indian nationalists came to power in India and they are determined to establish India as a regional super power. You can hook all sorts of bells and whistles and ornaments on that and talk about Pakistan and China's assistance, etcetera, etcetera, but the operational question here is, Had there been a change in policy? Had we been paying more attention, had we been tougher with China and Pakistan, would the Indians have tested? And my view is the VJP would have tested.

ROBINSON O.K. It may not create an a priori argument, but it certainly creates an ex post problem. So Gloria, what do we do now?

DUFFY The administration has actually done quite well in some areas in dealing with the potential proliferation of nuclear weapons.


DUFFY The former Soviet Union. Ukraine, Byelorussia and Kazakhstan all gave up their nuclear weapons.

ROBINSON You grant that? Good job with dealing with weapons in Russia?

HILL Pretty good.


DUFFY Now, you turn to India and Pakistan, you need a multi-level approach. The economic sanctions which the Clinton administration has imposed, Congress is a problem on that, as you know, so you have economic effects in the area. You have diplomacy that has been practiced by the U.S. to try to institute arms control measures in the area.


HILL We are so far behind, it's very hard to say what to do. I mean the alliance is in disarray, we have mishandled the relations with the big powers, Russia and China, we appear to be afraid of international law as in the case of the international criminal court in Rome, where the Secretary of Defense says: If this goes forward, we may have to pull our troops out of Europe. These are astonishing things. When we get back to India, the problem really is, I must say, in the hands of the President. The President, when the tests take place, comes out before the cameras in a very Nixonian setting with the seal behind him and says, "I today am imposing these sanctions." He now wants to waive the sanctions. It's this lack of credibility, and he's getting away with it because nobody pays attention, nobody keeps book on him, and nobody says: Wait a minute, didn't you just impose sanctions on a little while ago.

BLACKER This is great. The sanctions regime was mandated by Congress in the first place which, the last time I looked, was under the control of the Republican majority.

ROBINSON Clinton called for them, didn't he?

BLACKER No, no, no. The President's hand is forced with respect to the imposition of sanctions. What happened immediately, and Charlie's right, is that people frankly, both within the executive branch and the legislative branch from both parties started to find ways to make these sanctions less draconian partly because it's in no one's interest to induce the economic collapse of Pakistan and India, which is the practical effect of a sanctions policy carried to an extreme. There's also....

ROBINSON Few want sanctions on India or Pakistan, but many Americans demand tougher sanctions on China. Should the President go after China for its human rights violations?


ROBINSON China. This past spring, President Clinton visited China. One day, he engaged in a debate, a little exchange with the President of China that was broadcast live over Chinese television and President Clinton criticized China's policy toward Tibet and he expressed America's disapproval for what he called the tragic loss of life for the incident in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and two days later, a second event broadcast live over Chinese television, he engaged in a give-and-take questions and answers with Chinese students in which he defended American policies and principles and said they'd be good for China, too. So, Charlie, here we have a president of the United States sticking up for freedom and criticizing Chinese policy on live Chinese television. Isn't that a historic breakthrough?

HILL It's very good, and he deserves great credit for that, but the policy is really tough on the edges and soft at the core.

ROBINSON Nice image. What do you mean by it?

HILL Well, I think the Chinese really have the President where they want him. He has two main things ... for the Chinese point of view. One, he has given ground on Taiwan in ways that is, I think, very very much of concern. The second is he's given his stamp of approval to this way of changing China. He said that this is the leadership that China needs today. We need to deal with the Chinese the way we dealt with Gorbachev. When George Schultz went to Gorbachev in 1985, quietly inside he said to him, your system isn't going to work - it's just not going to work. And that kind of talk has been dropped when it comes to China. China now feels it has pretty much of a free ride with the U.S. on its key issues.

ROBINSON Let me draw a contrast. In 1988, Ronald Reagan goes to the Soviet Union and he insists against Soviet resistance, he insists on inviting dissidents, Soviet dissidents, to SpazoHouse, which was the American Embassy. Now, by contrast, President Clinton didn't meet dissidents and he referred, I said that he called the Tiananmen incident "a tragic loss of life" which strikes me as pretty mincing words for what was a massacre. So couldn't he have done something a little more forceful, couldn't President Clinton have been a little more Reaganesque, Gloria?

DUFFY I think he's striking a good balance in policy towards China. If you have no relationship in a positive sense, you cannot raise those issues.


BLACKER I thought the President's performance in China was spectacular. I thought it was an extraordinary thing to watch him stand up there without a text on multiple occasions and talk about the importance of freedom and talk about the importance of openness, the importance of transformation. China is a huge problem. This has not been an easy issue for any American administration. Relations with China were badly mangled the first eighteen months of the Reagan administration, and I would be the first to admit that the first eighteen months of the Clinton administration were rocky with respect to China because China is a complex issue. Well over a billion people, and the issue is how do you assist a process of peaceful evolutionary political change in China so that you don't end up with 1.2 billion people in turmoil in a crisis or in revolution? My view is that there are multiple lessons to be drawn from the collapse of the Soviet Union and one of them is that the way that system fell apart, while I like the end product, was rife with danger. We dodged a bullet. I would much prefer, in China's case, to have China evolve peacefully toward a more representational political system.

ROBINSON From China to Russia. Bill Clinton has given his friend Boris Yeltsin a great deal of support, but to what end? Is Russia any closer to genuine democracy today than when Bill Clinton was first elected?


ROBINSON The Clinton administration is doing a pretty good job with Russia, wouldn't you say?

HILL It's different, of course, but it's the same category as China. That is, that the way that that government is now running itself is not going to work. The way the Chinese government is running itself is not going to work. It's not going to be able to take that... We think that Russia and China are in effective transition toward democratization, toward the open market. I think that each one of them, Russia and China, think that they've got it pretty well right. They're going to make a lot of changes that are going to satisfy us and satisfy the IMF on the surface, but underneath it, they kind of like the way they're going. I think it's a tremendous misperception here.

ROBINSON So they're not in transition to anything at all. They want to get a little stronger, they want to get a little richer, but they don't want to diffuse power, they don't want more democracy in their country. I'm talking about the Russians now. Yeltsin and his people really don't...they're not after democracy on the American model in your view.

HILL Yeltsin may be, but I think Yeltsin is really a figure on the way out.

ROBINSON Indonesia collapses, and the Western world says, no bail-out. We're going to help you out, but you're going to have to make some very rigorous reforms. Within a matter of a few days, President Sudharto, President of Indonesia for 32 years, is gone. Russia, now on the brink of financial collapse, and the Clinton administration working with others, proposes an $18 billion bail-out. "No reforms, Boris, you're doing just fine." Why the disparity?



BLACKER No. In fact, in order for the Russians to receive the aid that's been lined up through the IMF, they in fact have to undertake, enact, implement and carry through yet another series of rather onerous reforms. It's not the case that...

ROBINSON Democratic reforms? Financial reforms?

BLACKER Financial reforms. It is a fair question to ask where exactly are the Russians going, and your implication, Peter, is the correct one. They are not headed toward American-style democracy. They're not headed toward an American-style market. The issue is, is there a reasonable prospect that through the continued provision of international assistance Russia can get closer to the notion of or the reality of market economics and participatory politics. My view is yes, my view is the stakes are enormous. The contrast between what we did or didn't do in Indonesia and what we do or don't do in Russia is reducible, really, to one big issue. The last time I looked, the Indonesians did not have 20,000 nuclear weapons, and look at what happened in Indonesia.

ROBINSON So we tip-toe around the Russians.

HILL I don't... No, you don't tip-toe around them, but you deal with them as a great power, as a great power with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, and fundamentally, a leadership that is committed to the process of reform.


DUFFY I think that's key, which is Yeltsin is still our best hope in Russia, and so backing him is...

ROBINSON Is Yeltsin running that country?

DUFFY Sure. He's running it. I mean, there are other people involved in running it, but he is not out of the loop.

ROBINSON His government has legitimacy and it actually can collect taxes and...

DUFFY Well, you know...

BLACKER Not as many as it should.

DUFFY These are challenges that he faces.

HILL These are the big issues. That's right.

DUFFY But his government is making an effort....

HILL So, but your view would be that...

ROBINSON Gloria and Chip think that the Clinton administration has been doing a good job on Russia. Charlie is full of criticism, but let's hear what Charlie wants the President to do.


ROBINSON What would you like to see the Clinton administration do instead toward Russia?

HILL Well, it's to get a foreign policy. This is like an eighteen-wheeler going down

HILL and we say after ten minutes, we're going to do something about it. We have allowed, because of inattention, it's not because the President is...

ROBINSON This has been the theme of your comments. Inattention where?

HILL We don't have a fully employed, deployed diplomacy. We don't have people...

ROBINSON Can American foreign policy only work if the President himself is personally engaged?

HILL He's got....Yes. The President....

ROBINSON Well, wait a minute. Isn't Madeleine....

DUFFY The President is very personally engaged.

HILL He's got to be a foreign policy President.

ROBINSON Whew! These two, they just came out of their seats!

BLACKER I'm sorry. I'm sorry. This is one issue that I can speak to as directly as I can any other one.

ROBINSON The issue that Bill Clinton just isn't paying attention.

BLACKER I was Special Assistant to the President, all right? I was in the White House. I was on the White House staff. I can assure you that the President is fully engaged on foreign policy issues. He is extraordinarily attentive to the relationship with Russia, to China, to other kinds of issues....

ROBINSON Does that mean he's willing to make phone calls when the NSE staff asks him to make phone calls, or does it mean that he is a thinker in the Kissingerian sense that he's thinking strategically about overall.... Is he a strategic thinker? What evidence did you see with your own eyes that he's a strategic thinker?

BLACKER Because the way in which foreign policy issues are teed up for this president is as part of a complex puzzle. It's not: You need to get on the phone with Yeltsin and do X, Y and Z, absent context. That's why, to go back to something that I said earlier, which I do not regard as platitudes, fundamentally, American foreign policy is oriented toward three sets of goals: peace, prosperity and freedom. Peace in the sense of stability. That's always been an important goal for us. Prosperity in the sense that when we are materially well off and prospering, it's easier for us to be active in the world, and it's in our interest for the rest of the world to be prosperous in Freedom, because fundamentally, and frankly, this is one of the important legacies of the Reagan and Bush administrations, is that on balance, U.S. interests are better served when politics around the world are more rather than less participatory in nature.

ROBINSON Gloria, Clinton is engaged personally or not?

DUFFY He's personally engaged where it counts. I think it's a danger to go back to the period of the Cold War and say that the type of grand strategy we had then we don't have now. I think geopolitics are important, but the terms have changed, the mechanisms that you have at your disposal to influence in the international environment are different. What matters to countries is different. I just want to leave that thought, because generalizing based on the past does not give us good guidance for this period.

ROBINSON We need to wrap it up, alas. Peace, prosperity, freedom. Well, that doesn't sound bad, Charlie. What should it be?

HILL Well, the only excuse for the kind of foreign policy we have conducted in the last...

ROBINSON You know, you're becoming quite bellicose, yourself.

HILL ...many years is that I have felt that the President was not involved. If he has been involved, that's really alarming.

ROBINSON Charlie, Gloria, Chip, thank you very much.


ROBINSON The post Cold War world, a new global environment. In my own view, the United States could do worse than to remember a maxim from the past, Theodore Roosevelt's famous line, "Speak softly and carry a big stick." I'm Peter Robinson. Thanks for joining us.

More from Uncommon Knowledge