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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Who Should Lead America's Foreign Affairs?

U.S. President Bill Clinton won the debate on foreign policy in this year's presidential campaign. He won it by avoiding it. Foreign policy issues have been so remote to this election campaign that Jim Lehrer, the moderator of the presidential debates, had to beg the audience for a foreign policy question.


Because there has been no foreign policy debate, we still know little about what Clinton plans to do in international affairs during his second term. In fact, since the collapse of communism and commensurate disappearance of containment as the organizing principle of American foreign policy, the United States has not had a national debate about its role in international affairs. Lacking a grand strategy, American motivations and objectives in international affairs often seem ambiguous, confused, if not slyly sinister to outside observers. Try to get an official at the Russian Foreign Ministry to explain to you what is the American policy toward Russia. In my experience, each Russian diplomat gives you a different answer.


Ambiguity is not always bad and grand strategy is not always good. In fact, lots of stupid and tragic foreign policies in American history have been cloaked and legitimized in the name of grand strategy. Remember Vietnam?


Moreover, the development of foreign policy strategies on the scale of containment take time to emerge, as did containment itself. Finally, the world today does not resemble George Bush's "New World Order" or Frank Fukuyama's "end of history," but neither is it one threatened by anti-systemic ideologies such as fascism or communism. The Clinton administration quite rightly focused on the specific issues in its foreign policy and wisely avoided constructing sweeping agendas, making lofty new commitments, or pontificating about new foreign policy philosophies.


However, the Clinton administration also got lucky in its first term. Few Americans died in Bosnia, Boris Yeltsin won re-election and China did not invade Taiwan. The next Clinton foreign policy team may not be so fortunate.


Quietly, the basics of Clinton's foreign policy philosophy have crept into place. In the parlance of international relations theorists, it's called liberal institutionalism. The idea is simple; by expanding international institutions and trade, the United States constructively engages other states in activities of mutual benefit. Such engagement creates incentives against hostile or stupid behavior. It also promotes development of market economies and democratic institutions. Even authoritarian states must be engaged, so the philosophy goes, as trade, investment and diplomatic contacts will eventually lead to political liberalization.


The Clinton foreign policy team are liberal institutionalists. They have promoted the strengthening of international institutions between old allies such as the North American Free Trade Association, World Trade Organization and NATO and pursued constructive engagement with less friendly places.


When some of these "engaged" states abuse human rights, such as Indonesia's slaughter of the East Timorese, Russia's butchery in Chechnya, or China's obliteration of Tibetan culture, the Clinton administration has opted for continued engagement, rather than sanction or confrontation, as a way to induce change. Even NATO expansion has been pursued not because it serves narrowly defined U.S. national security interests, but because NATO is the international institution in Europe best suited to engage East European states.


As a general philosophy, liberal institutionalism serves American interests abroad and can sometimes stimulate democratization and capitalism. Sometimes, however, engagement can sustain demagogues and suppress democrats. The challenge for Clinton in the second term is to develop a more deliberate strategy for dealing with such situations, a strategy that would include constructive engagement of not only the "bad guys" in power that we hope will reform, but also the "good guys" out of power pushing for change from below. The recent histories of regime change in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union and South Africa demonstrate that constructive engagement of both the challenged and the challengers works best.





Michael McFaul teaches political science at Stanford University and is a senior associate at the Moscow Carnegie Center. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.